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Top-ranked UConn routs Creighton to clinch Big East regular-season title

When UConn coach Geno Auriemma gave freshman Nika Muhl a starting role eight games ago, it wasn't necessarily for her scoring capabilities.

"She didn't shoot her way into the lineup," Auriemma said. "Some kids think that, 'If I score enough points, I can get into the lineup.' She got in the old-fashioned way; she worked really hard at all the other things. ... I would say that whatever offense we do get from Nika, I think is a bonus."

On Thursday, top-ranked UConn's 81-49 victory over Big East Conference opponent Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska, started with Muhl, the tenacious 5-foot-10 guard from Croatia.

Muhl finished with 19 points and five steals, eclipsing her previous career high of 11 points in the game's first 4 minutes, 38 seconds, as the Huskies (19-1, 16-0) clinched the Big East's regular-season championship for the first time since 2011. UConn spent the last seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference before returning to the Big East this year.

And so it was on the occasion of UConn's 20th Big East regular-season crown and 27th regular-season conference title overall that Auriemma used the words, "She's my slime, man," referring to Muhl, for perhaps the first time in his life.

"What can I tell you?" Auriemma said. "They tell me that's, like, the ultimate, so that's her, Nika. That's my slime. I just heard from my players that's really, really cool."

UConn junior Christyn Williams would explain later that "my slime" is akin to the slang term "my dog" or "my friend." Apparently, Auriemma picked up the phrase from listening to a few of his team's seven freshmen, including Muhl.

"She's like that at practice. She's not afraid to shoot. She's not afraid to take chances, as you saw today defensively," Auriemma said of Muhl. "She pushes the tempo. She's kind of an energy source. She's been working on shooting the ball."

Olivia Nelson-Ododa added a double-double for UConn with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Williams finished with 16 points, freshman Paige Bueckers had 13 points, nine assists and four steals and Evina Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards each had nine points. Muhl shot 8-for-13, 3-for-6 from 3-point range.

Temi Carda had 24 points for Creighton (7-10, 6-7).

UConn led 42-21 at halftime behind 15 from Muhl, who scored 11 points, hitting three 3s and converting a steal into a layup, in the Huskies' opening 16-2 run. Muhl's previous career high of 11 points came in a Feb. 3 game vs. St. John's at Gampel Pavilion.

"I think it was just practice," said Muhl, who led the Huskies in scoring for the first time in her career. "I was building my confidence a lot in practice for the last few days and they were leaving me quite wide open at the beginning of the game so I just took the shots. I had the confidence and my teammates had the confidence in me."

Muhl scored just 10 points in the last four games combined.

UConn, meanwhile, has now won 38 Big East titles, 20 in the regular season and 18 tournament championships. Unbeaten in seven seasons in the AAC, the Huskies have not lost a regular season conference game since March 4, 2013.

UConn will finish its current five-game road trip Saturday at Butler in Indianapolis before playing its regular-season finale Monday at home against Marquette.

"When you're in a conference, it's insinuated, I mean it's inferred, whatever way you want to use it, that the reason you're in the conference is you're trying to win the conference," Auriemma said. "For us, in all those years in all the various versions of the Big East and then the last seven years in the AAC and now back to the Big East, that's always goal No. 1.

"That's really the thing I think players will respond to. It proves that you're the best team in the league that you play in and you're the best team against the peers you compete against every day. We're consistently in the hunt for that. We've been fortunate it to win it as many times as we have."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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