The first round of 16 matchup in the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament was the first to welcome paying spectators. Huskies fans made sure the rest of the crowd in San Antonio knew who won.
SAN ANTONIO — Anyone who came for the showdown between UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark got something much better on Saturday — what the Huskies and Hawkeyes look like when they are largely relying on other players.
Of course, those two saw this coming — Clark said in an interview this week that the winner would depend not on her or Bueckers but on the players around them. And top-seeded UConn held a clear edge beyond the one-on-one matchup, stopping No. 5 seed Iowa, 92-72, to earn a trip to the round of 8 to face either Michigan or Baylor, who were playing Saturday afternoon.
It was two juniors, Christyn Williams and the redshirt Evina Westbrook, who carried the show for UConn. Williams scored 27 points and — perhaps more importantly — prevented Clark from finding her footing. Westbrook missed only two shots and finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists for the Huskies. Together, they spent much of the afternoon in a tag-team, poking holes in Iowa’s defense to help UConn’s lead grow.
“I am a complete player and I feel like people have forgotten that,” Williams said in a postgame interview. “I’m just trying to showcase my game from here on out.”
Clark, the top scorer in Division I, finished with a below-average 21 points. Bueckers scored 18 points but spent most of the game deferring to her older teammates.
Neither Clark nor Bueckers had an outstanding first half, but Clark’s was especially poor: she made 2 of 11 shots and her only 3-pointer in six attempts looked shaky as it rattled around the rim after hitting the backboard. Clarke instead relied on her eagle-eyed passing, which helped Iowa keep the game close early.
Bueckers had 6 points in the first half, but finished with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists as she repeatedly handed the ball off to teammates and celebrated as the lead grew. After one play as the game started to turn into a rout, Bueckers ran along the sideline in celebration and smacked her coach, Geno Auriemma, on his backside, prompting him to turn around with a dumbfounded look.
In a postgame interview, Auriemma explained that the tap was in response to a basket by Anna Makurat, after he had hesitated to play her and said he wanted her to contribute more throughout the season. Two assistant coaches had urged him to play Makurat, saying she would come through. She hit two 3-pointers in the last five minutes of the game.
“I think Paige was letting me know: She never passes up an opportunity to let me know when I’m wrong,” he said.
Auriemma was back with his team after isolating because of a positive coronavirus test, which prevented him from coaching during the first two rounds of the tournament. He joined his team in San Antonio on Wednesday, and after the win over Iowa he pulled Clark aside to offer her a pat on the back and some words of encouragement.
The Huskies remained without freshman guard Nika Muhl, who injured her right ankle in the Huskies’ first game of the tournament. But she was out of the boot and cheered on her team from the sidelines. Her replacement in the starting lineup, Aaliyah Edwards, had 18 points and made several key plays down low, including a block and two offensive rebounds in the first half. UConn outrebounded Iowa, 42-25.
It was the first game with paying in-person spectators of the women’s tournament, and Huskies fans came out — even if they did not go to UConn.
Chris Aranda, 32, of San Antonio, ran a 5K then came to see the player nicknamed “Paige Buckets” with his brother. While Bueckers did not break any records, Aranda said he was not disappointed.
“I mean, UConn is dominating, aren’t they?” he said after UConn took a 14 point lead before halftime.
Marisa Ingemi contributed reporting.