STORRS - Gabby Williams caught the pass from Saniya Chong in the lane, turned to her left and took a a dribble to get away from Syracuse’s Briana Day, and converted the left-handed layup over Day with 4:35 gone in the UConn women’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament Bridgeport Regional second-round game Monday night.
Since the pass did not directly lead to the basket, Chong was not credited with an assist. It was the only Huskies’ hoop without an assist attached to it in the first three quarters. Top-seeded UConn finished with 30 assists on 33 baskets in its 94-64 rout of No. 8 Syracuse at Gampel Pavilion.
“Take a minute to think about that,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s just unusual to do what we did and we do it quite often. That’s why we can have performances like we had today because our ball movement was incredible.
“We knew they were going to press. We knew there were going to be traps. We knew they were going to come from a lot of different areas. But we have five good ballhandlers out on the floor. All five of them feel really comfortable with the ball and when you have five players that can all make plays you can have a performance like we had. They were good. I’ve got to give it to them. They were good.”
Kia Nurse’s 29 points - that included a NCAA Tournament record-tying nine 3-point baskets - was the show-stopper as UConn (34-0 overall and winner of 109 straight games) reached the Sweet 16 for the 24th consecutive season. Nurse, Williams (23), Katie Lou Samuelson (23), and Napheesa Collier (17) combined for 92 points. The only other score was Crystal Dangerfield’s tear-drop floater at the first-quarter buzzer.
The assists were more spread out, with Chong leading the way with seven. Nurse, while enjoying her incredible shooting night, also had six assists. She was followed by Williams and Dangerfield (5 each), Samuelson (4), and Collier (3).
“I love that six-assist number,” Nurse said with a smile. “When you find a person and you hit them right in the hands and right on the money and they load it up and knock it in, that’s one of the most fun parts of the game.”
In last year’s national championship game in Indianapolis, Syracuse’s pressure produced 17 UConn turnovers that the Orange turned into 15 points.
In Monday night’s rematch, the Huskies committed just 10 turnovers that led to nine Syracuse points as Williams made the Orange press ineffective.
“When your center is the fastest guy on the team and is a tremendous ballhandler, that is really, really tough on the other team,” Auriemma said. “Whatever guy you put on her, it’s a tough matchup. Then you try to put somebody as quick as her, and she just overpowers you in the post.”
For Williams, it was a flashback to her days at Reed High in Sparks, Nevada, when she was an All-American guard.
“It’s funny, because we were talking about back in the day when I used to be a guard,” Williams said. “We were laughing about that. I lost my confidence in handling the ball against pressure. I used to turn the ball over a lot and let them speed me up. But I felt really confident today. I felt like I could control the tempo. I didn’t let them speed me up. It felt good.”
UConn has had at least 30 assists in three straight games. On Saturday, the current club became the third in program history to have five players with at least 100 assists.
In the American Athletic Conference rankings, Williams is fourth in assists (5.3) with Chong and Nurse tied for fifth (4.0), Dangerfield ninth (3.9), and Samuelson 10th (3.3). In assist-to-turnover ratio, Chong leads the AAC (3.6), with Nurse fourth (2.7), Williams fifth (2.4), Dangerfield sixth (2.2), and Samuelson seventh (1.9). Collier does not qualify for the leaders (3.0 per game average) with her 75 assists in 34 games, but she would be eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.6 if she did.
The Huskies have 811 assists on the season heading into Saturday’s Sweet 16 game against No. 4 UCLA at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena. The 2014 team had 850 in 40 games, the 2002 team had 846 in 39 games, the 2015 team had 828 in 39 games, and the 2016 team had 821 in 38 games.
“It is as good as any we have had,” Auriemma said. “I have to give it to them. We really don’t have guys on our team who are trying to get X-number of points or trying to set records of anything like that. They are really unselfish. They really play well together and they enjoy being on the floor together. That is half the battle. They look for each other.
“There are a lot of people that are good passers, but they are not necessarily willing passers. We have guys who are pretty good passers and they are willing. They want to.”
The perfect example of that came at the end of the third quarter when Nurse passed up a shot for her record-breaking 10th trey and instead found Collier open for a layup.
“Those are the plays that you have to make,” Nurse said. “It might not have mattered at that point in the game, but somewhere down the stretch that could be a huge play. If you make those decisions now they become habit and then they help you down the stretch.”
“Kia could have gotten any three that she wanted to get, but we assisted on all but three shots,” Williams added. “It was that team basketball that we wanted to come into the game and have. So it was really fun.”
Saturday’s schedule in Bridgeport is set. The opener will have No. 10 Oregon taking on third-seeded Maryland at 11:30 a.m., with the UConn-UCLA game starting around 2 p.m. The regional final will be at Webster Bank Arena on Monday.