Lucy Olsen’s ‘Nova is very good. But Paige Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards’ UConn proves to be better (2024)

There were many reasons why Villanova lost to Connecticut on Wednesday. One of them might have come from another part of the Philadelphia area.

Four nights earlier, the Huskies were decked at home by South Jersey-born freshman sensation Hannah Hidalgo’s Notre Dame. It’s a safe bet that UConn wasn’t about to let itself have a losing streak.

The next 43 reasons were on the Pavilion floor: the combined points scored by UConn’s biggest stars, guard Paige Bueckers and forward Aaliyah Edwards, in an 81-60 win. Bueckers had 21 and Edwards had 22.

If you’re a casual follower of women’s college hoops, you might know Bueckers’ name from her sensational early seasons, before she missed the last one with a torn ACL. She’s all the way back now, with 20 points per game — on 54.8% shooting, including 47.4% on three-pointers — plus 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.3 steals.

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And with so much stardom across women’s college basketball, Bueckers might be flying under the radar.

How can that be for someone who was the national player of the year as a freshman? Well, that was three years ago and in the midst of the pandemic. Even her run to the 2022 title game feels like a long time ago.

“The problem with coaching somebody like Paige is your expectations are so high that you don’t truly appreciate how many great things she does,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

Caitlin Clark’s stardom, which exploded while Bueckers was out, has put the Iowa sensation atop the marquee. But she’s not the only reason why Bueckers is a notch below right now.

It’s no fluke that UConn is ranked No. 11 in the latest AP poll. The Huskies trail not just Clark’s Hawkeyes, Angel Reese’s LSU, Kamilla Cardoso’s South Carolina, and Cameron Brink’s Stanford, but also major chasers like UCLA, N.C. State, and the Clark-beaters at Ohio State. The top 11 teams span six conferences from coast to coast.

‘Nova puts up a fight

Villanova was ranked earlier this season. If the team plays all four quarters of its upcoming games as well as it did Wednesday’s first two, it will be again.

The Wildcats trailed just 37-36 at halftime, with star scorer Lucy Olsen delivering 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting. That included a five-point outburst in the half’s final minutes, all with two-time reigning Big East defensive player of the year Nika Mühl guarding her.

Eventually, UConn’s talent proved too much, especially Edwards. Villanova simply could not stop her once she got the ball. She shot 9-of-13 from the field against a defense that couldn’t double-team her because of her teammates’ firepower.

“Obviously, Aaliyah Edwards is a force to be reckoned with,” Wildcats coach Denise Dillon said. “She’s proven to be the top post player in the country.”

South Carolina and North Philly’s Dawn Staley might disagree on Cardoso’s behalf, but that’s for another day. (A day that might arrive soon, because the Gameco*cks host UConn on Feb. 11.) What’s certain is that Edwards, a senior, will be in the WNBA later this year. ESPN’s latest mock draft projects her at No. 6 overall, going to the Washington Mystics, which last season featured Wilmington’s Elena Delle Donne and St. Joseph’s grad Natasha Cloud.

Across the floor, Olsen showed why she might join them in the pros some day. She had a team-high 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Scouts knew what they saw when the junior drove hard around Mühl to score a layup-and-one to start the third quarter, giving Villanova a brief lead.

“Learning from what you see of the best ones doing on the other end, in Paige Bueckers,” Dillon said, “her game has elevated, and [she’s] wanting to continue to learn, and here’s a great opportunity for it.”

Olsen’s growing potential

Auriemma praised Dillon’s tutelage, and for continuing a tradition her predecessor Harry Perretta started.

“I’ve been down here 35 years, whatever it is, and I’ve hated every one of them,” the Norristown native said of his latest homecoming. “At least Denise is normal — I can have a conversation with her. The other guy, forget about it.”

That was pretty funny. But what Olsen did Wednesday was serious, including how she reflected on it afterward. Asked what it’s like to now be the focal point of opponents’ defenses, she went deep with her answer.

“I don’t want to think too much into it — like, oh, right here, they’re going to collapse, so kick out. Because sometimes they don’t collapse,” she said. “If you think too far ahead, you might make the wrong play. I’ve been trying to get better at not making up my mind on what I’m going to do. … Just trying to read the defense, instead of already having what I’m going to do planned.”

» READ MORE: Caitlin Clark put on a show when she visited Rutgers last month

Those are a future pro’s words. Auriemma knew it, even as he reflected on how many people didn’t expect Olsen’s breakout.

“It’s just a natural thing, that maybe everybody assumes that when you lose a great player, that automatically means you’re going to drop a lot,” Auriemma said. “But I don’t think anybody thought at the beginning of the season [that] Lucy will just take all of Maddy’s shots, and they won’t miss a beat.”

Villanova has missed a few beats this year, holding a 13-8 record (6-4 Big East) so far. They certainly missed some on Wednesday. But there’s a tune stirring on the Main Line, and it sounds familiar.

“I would hate to play them in the NCAA Tournament, especially if you’ve never played them before,” Auriemma said. “This team, as they keep getting better, they’ll learn to play even better with the way Lucy plays.”

Lucy Olsen’s ‘Nova is very good. But Paige Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards’ UConn proves to be better (2024)

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