UConn women’s basketball rolls past Xavier as Olivia Nelson-Ododa sets pair of career highs

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

HARTFORD — All week, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has been challenging his seniors to do more and be better.

Against Xavier on Saturday, Olivia Nelson-Ododa did just that. The 6-foot-5 center dominated defensively, grabbing rebounds, swatting away shots, and stealing any and all easy passes.

Thanks to the Nelson-Ododa’s career-high performance, the No.10-ranked Huskies defeated Xavier, 78-41, for their third straight win after coming off a three-week break.

Nelson-Ododa finished with career-bests in blocks (eight) and steals (five) to go along with 11 points. Freshman Caroline Ducharme led UConn with 20 points followed by Christyn Williams with 19 points.

“Things are clicking for us now,” Nelson-Ododa said. “On the defensive end and offensively, things are running a little bit more smoother. We have a better idea of our roles, where people are supposed to be at the right time and what exactly we’re supposed to be doing.”

Takeaways from UConn’s win over Xavier:

It’s ONO’s world

The senior paced UConn’s defense all game.

Halfway through the second quarter, Nelson-Ododa sparked two back-to-back plays for UConn (9-3, 4-0 Big East). At 5:37 she stole the ball away from a Musketeer, passed to Williams who found an open Ducharme for a layup. On the next possession, Nelson-Ododa blocked a Xavier shot and collected the ball. She again passed to Williams who again found an open Ducharme — this time in the corner. Ducharme made the 3-pointer and gave UConn a 37-17 lead.

By the end of the first half, Nelson-Ododa had recorded a career-high four steals and was one block away from reaching her career high.

“As cliché as it sounds, (I’m) just trying to do what I can for my team at that moment,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Whether it’s getting a defensive stop or guarding somebody in the post that needs to be guarded well or passing well on offense or getting people open, setting screens different things like that.”

Less than 10 seconds into the third, she put up her seventh block of the game, tying her career high. Three minutes later, she surpassed the benchmark with her eighth swat.

The Georgia native repeatedly used her body as a wall under the basket against Xavier (6-9, 1-5), just like she did during the first half of UConn’s game against South Carolina in November. On Saturday, Musketeers would be meet with a towering Nelson-Ododa with her arms spread out on their way to the basket. Instead of making the shot, they’d instead be forced to watch the ball fly any other direction but toward the basket.

“When you play games like these, you have to almost have a game plan. You have to go in and say, ‘What do I want to get done today? What do I want to get accomplished?’” Auriemma said. “For Liv, that’s gotta include, ‘I’ve got to make a couple shots. I got to score in the lane a little bit. I gotta play good defense. I got to block a couple shots.’ … That’s a couple games now that she’s really really done a good job of that and hopefully that’s a start of something

An in-control Mühl

In her second start this season — Auriemma has replaced senior Evina Westbrook with Mühl in the starting lineup the past two games — Mühl looked more in-control. After being called for four personal fouls last Sunday (her first game back after a foot injury), it took until the second quarter for Mühl to be called for her first foul.

The sophomore played with her normal aggression, yet didn’t let it become sloppy. At 4:11 in the second quarter, Mühl had a smooth steal-and-score play. She grabbed the ball off a Xavier player’s dribble, then sprinted up court and weaved in and out of defenders. Her EuroStep took her successfully to the basket.

“It doesn’t really matter to me if I’m starting or not,” she said. “But every time I come in, I’m just trying to set a tone defensively, kinda, bring the energy that we need, whatever the team needs me to do and I know they trust me.”

Halfway through third period, Mühl kept her cool as she pressured a Musketeer before successfully tapping away the ball. She ran along the baseline, tiptoeing the line to keep the ball in play before passing to Aaliyah Edwards for the fast-break layup.

The Croatian finished with a team-high five assists along with four steals and six rebounds.

“It’s definitely great to be back with my team and help them through games,” Mühl said. “I felt good physically, I feel good mentally. But I’m still limited on time a little bit, especially in practice, so I’m trying to get better.”

Career-highs all around

UConn played all nine of its available players, with each scoring at least two points.

Piath Gabriel, who played seven minutes over two games before Saturday, started the fourth quarter for UConn and was a quick 4-of-4 on layups halfway through the quarter. Each time the ball went through the hoop, her Husky teammates jumped up from the bench and cheered. The sophomore finished with career highs in points (nine), rebounds (five) and minutes (10).

Ducharme also finished with career highs in rebounds (seven), assists (five) and steals (four).

“Caroline tries to do everything really really well. She puts a lot of pressure on herself. She takes a lot of pride in her performance, what she looks like, what people think of her performance. She’s one of these kids who’s not afraid to put it out there because she’s gonna give you her best every night,” Auriemma said. “There are times when you forget she’s a freshman out there. She looks a little bit more mature than your typical freshman.”

A good sign for Huskies

Paige Bueckers attended Saturday’s game sporting a knee brace instead of crutches. It’s a good sign the sophomore’s recovery from a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus is going well. Bueckers suffered the injury in the final minute of UConn’s game against Notre Dame on Dec. 5 and is expected to return sometime in February.

More injury updates: On Friday’s UConn Women’s Basketball Coaches Show, Auriemma told Bob Joyce that Azzi Fudd (foot injury) is back to working out, however; he did not have a timeline for when she’d be available to play. ... Auriemma also said Aubrey Griffin had successful back surgery on Monday and he thinks she’ll be back to “100 percent” in the spring. The junior will not play the remainder of the 2021-2022 season.

UP NEXT: UConn will travel across country to Eugene, Oregon to face the Ducks Monday at 5 p.m. ET. The game will be a homecoming game for Westbrook.