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UConn women have a different approach as they head to the West Coast for the Sweet 16

Mar. 26—STORRS — It was Jan. 27 at a sold-out Gampel Pavilion when UConn senior Nika Muhl fouled out just 31 seconds into the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.

UConn trailed 60-59 at the time, then unraveled without its point guard and defensive stopper, falling 82-67.

Then, Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Muhl fouled out again with 5:17 to play. Trying to defend shifty Syracuse guard Dyaisha Fair, Muhl was whistled for three fouls in 29 seconds and went to the bench.

This time, the Huskies needed a different approach, UConn's Paige Bueckers said.

"We actually had been in that position before against Notre Dame and we had the wrong approach vs. tonight," Bueckers said. "We called a huddle and we were like, 'All right, we've got to band together. We've really got to focus and lock in.' ... You just get hyper-focused, hyper-locked in and we just didn't want our season to end. I thought we responded much better, in a much better way."

UConn's finish was jubilant. The third-seeded Huskies (31-5) held off No, 6 Syracuse 72-64 to advance to their 30th straight Sweet 16. UConn will play No. 7 Duke (22-11) — a rival from back in the Diana Taurasi era — beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.

Shortly after Muhl fouled out, there was a timeout. And this time, UConn coach Geno Auriemma liked his team's reaction.

"You know you have a good team when everything that needed to be said was said by the players, not me," Auriemma said. "If they just sat there staring at me, dead ahead and waited for me to tell them everything was going to be OK, I would have had a problem with that.

"As I'm thinking about what I'm going to say, they're telling each other, 'This is what's going to happen.' So they were coaching the team. That's when you know you have a really good team."

That mindset is also the reason Auriemma sees this team as being more successful going forward.

After last year's hardfought 77-58 win over Baylor in the second round of the NCAAs at Gampel, the Huskies, fighting through a season of injuries as they are now, needed an easier game in the Sweet 16, the coach said, and they didn't get it. They bowed out of the tournament to Ohio State in the regional semifinal in Seattle.

"We didn't have it in us to play a game like tonight," Auriemma said. "I think we're a little bit different (this year) because we've played so many games like tonight where we've had to play like this that I think we have that build-up, those reserves built up a little bit now.

"And we didn't have Paige (last year). So you know, the mentality of this team is way different. Yeah, throw Paige into the mix."

Bueckers, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, said she went to her car and cried after last year's Baylor game, emotional at having to miss not only the entire season in general, but March in particular.

On Monday, Bueckers had 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a blocked shot to lift the Huskies to victory.

"(Last year), I was so emotional because these high-stakes games, these games that mean everything, I missed it so much," Bueckers said. "... I prayed so hard a year ago today to be in my shoes where I'm at right now."

v.fulkerson@theday.com