UConn crisis averted: Huskies barely secure 28th straight Sweet 16 bid with win over UCF

For a moment on Monday, UConn appeared to have comfortably fended off an upset bid from No. 7 seed UCF.

Instead it finished with a serious sweat before extending its Division I record streak of Sweet 16 bids to 28 straight seasons with a 52-47 win.

In a grind-it-out game, the second-seeded Huskies reeled off 12 straight points to turn a 30-29 third-quarter deficit into a seemingly insurmountable 41-30 fourth-quarter lead. But the Knights weren't done. After scoring a total of 12 points in the second and third quarters, UCF posted its own 9-0 run late in the fourth to cut UConn's lead to 48-45 with 53 seconds remaining.

Late free-throw glitch costs UCF

But a rough trip to the free throw line with 23 seconds left put a halt to UCF's rally. Senior forward Brittney Smith missed the first of two free throws after being fouled by UConn's Paige Bueckers on a layup attempt. Her second went in. But a hitch in her motion sent players from both teams into the lane before she shot.

UCF got whistled for a lane violation, and the free throw didn't count. UConn ball. The Huskies didn't relinquish their lead from there, and will advance to face No. 3 seed Indiana in the Sweet 16.

"I'm not sure how we won that game, but we did," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after the game.

Neither team shot well, as evidenced by the final score. UCF shot just 34.8% from the field but kept things close thanks in part to a 5-of-10 effort from beyond the 3-point arc. UConn was even worse from the floor in a 29.2% shooting effort. Like the Knights, the Huskies shot better from deep in a 6-of-18 (33.3%) effort from beyond the arc.

From left to right, Connecticut's Paige Bueckers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Nika Muhl and Azzi Fudd react during the first half of a second-round women's college basketball game against Central Florida in the NCAA tournament, Monday, March 21, 2022, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn's Sweet 16 streak is safe. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

It's the line where UConn found its biggest edge. The Huskies hit 18 of 23 (78.3%) free-throw attempts, where the Knights hit only half (10 of 20) of theirs. And then there's the make that didn't count.

Is UConn a threat to win the championship?

It's not been a typically dominant season in Storrs, where the Huskies lost reigning Wooden Award winner Bueckers to a December knee injury six games into their season. But UConn still won the Big East and entered NCAA tournament play with a 27-5 record.

Better yet for the Huskies, they got Bueckers back just in time for the postseason. She finished Monday's game with nine points and appears to still finding her way back into a lineup that's played most of the season without her. Azzi Fudd led UConn with 16 points while hitting 4 of 10 3-point attempts. Christyn Williams added 12.

UConn's not the championship favorite this year. That honor belongs to South Carolina. But it's back in its usual position in the tournament's second weekend, where it always poses a threat.