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Same teams. Different year. Same result.
In a highly anticipated rematch of arguably the two most successful programs in women's basketball history, UConn reigned supreme again as it defeated Tennessee 67-61 Thursday night.
Although the Huskies prevailed, the outcome wasn’t so clear-cut for much of the game.
Tennessee controlled the first three quarters, but it was all UConn in the fourth as they flourished with unselfish play, good ball movement, and the heroics of former Lady Vol Evina Westbrook (15 pts, 5 rebounds) and freshman phenom Paige Bueckers (9 pts, 8 rebounds, 7 assists). Bueckers, who actually had a poor shooting night, knocked down a key three-pointer late in the fourth—off an assist from Westbrook—to seal the Huskies win.
There was lots to be bedazzled about in last night’s game, but here are my two biggest takeaways from Thursday night’s clash of the NCAAW titans.
Tennessee will go as Rae Burrell goes
Last night, Tennessee went away from its best player and it cost them.
My thoughts? Keep junior guard/forward Rae Burrell involved—at all times. She is the most consistent and confident player right now on the Tennessee squad, and an especially dynamic player offensively. Burrell, who finished last night with a team-high 18 points and 8 rebounds, has emerged this season as the Lady Vols’ go-to player.
Burrell is their leading scorer at 16.7 ppg and is shooting 49 percent from the field, 43.5 percent on threes, and 82.8 percent from the free-throw line. Her efforts last night marked her seventh time leading the team in scoring this season. Since entering the starting lineup 21 games ago, she is averaging 14.9 ppg as a starter. Burrell is averaging 15.6 ppg and shooting 51.6 percent over her last five games (including 17.0 ppg and 50.9 pct shooting in SEC games) and 26 points vs. Arkansas earlier this month.
Burrell is a gifted offensive player, ball-handler, and all-around spectacular player, getting it done on both sides of the basket. Threes, jumpers, layups, rebounding, assisting—Burrell’s blueprint was all over the floor for Tennessee last night and a large part of why the Lady Vols led for three quarters.
Then UConn turned up the heat in the fourth quarter and took the Lady Vols— and Burrell—out of their game. When the Huskies’ defense switched up, the Lady Vols’ pace appeared thrown off, they got stagnant, and they couldn’t buy a bucket.
Tennessee felt Burrell’s diminished presence and so did fans, who took to social media to voice their displeasure.
Tennessee struggled the whole quarter trying to find an answer for UConn’s heat and for whatever reason, it didn’t include making adjustments to get Burrell the ball.
I asked Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper about that after the game. Here’s what she had to say:
“We were trying to find ways to get her the ball and ran a few things for her. We were just a little bit out of sorts…we had good looks across the board but just didn’t knock them down. We looked at different things to try to help get her the ball, but we just didn’t execute as well as we needed to.”
Burrell played the entire first half and carried the team for much of the night. She would have carried them to victory, in my opinion, if she could have. She’s an unexpected spark on a very talented and well-coached team. For that reason, she must be a crucial piece of the Lady Vols’ game plan in all ways and at all times.
People are hungry for women’s sports
Much debate has taken place over whether women’s sports—basketball at the collegiate and pro levels, in particular—are worth the investment. Do people even watch, or even care? Is it worth it?
Last night showed they do, and it is.
Point blank, women’s sports need to be highlighted more. Last night’s matchup of the two nationally-ranked teams was so much fun because fans watched it together on social media from their own living rooms, miles and miles away from each other. It was like a distant family reunion with everyone commenting on each other’s posts, retweeting, forwarding, and just having a good time.
A nationally televised broadcast of two legendary teams—two legendary women’s teams—brought together scores of fans. You could feel the excitement and energy through the keyboards before the game even started. People were looking forward to it. It was a big game, a big rivalry game, and the interest was there. People tuned in and watched—because it was available.
Even WNBA players were watching:
Women’s sports matter. Put it on and they will watch.