It couldn't have been a better script for Evina Westbrook's return to Rocky Top.
UConn's redshirt junior guard, who transferred from Tennessee two years ago, connected on back to back fourth-quarter 3-pointers to spark the No. 3 Huskies (9-0) to a 67-61 victory over the No. 25 Lady Volunteers (9-3) Thursday night.
Westbrook's two 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter turned a tie game into a UConn lead that got as large as nine points. The Huskies never surrendered the advantage.
“I pulled Evina aside during the shoot-around (early in the day),” said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. "I told her there's a difference between playing with a lot of emotion and not letting emotion get in the way.
“Those shots that she made were pretty important.”
“I leaned on my teammates in this game,” Westbrook said. “I didn't listen to the boos or the fans yelling ‘traitor.’ I knew they had my back. I just played like myself. I was more anxious than anything else. After it was over, the first thing out of my mouth was how glad I am it was over.”
UConn freshman Paige Bueckers added nine points, eight rebounds and seven assists for the Huskies (9-0). After rolling her right ankle with just over 3 minutes left, Bueckers left the court for a minute to get her ankle taped up. She returned and hit a huge 3-pointer from the wing with 28 seconds left that gave the Huskies a 66-61 lead and sealed the win.
It was a classic meeting in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Revival Series during We Back Pat Week, which honors legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who passed away in 2016. The Lady Vols wore for the third time “Summitt” on the back of their jerseys.
This was UConn's first trip to Tennessee since 2006.
Westbrook's pressure shots turned a tie game into a six-point lead for UConn early in the fourth quarter. She ignited a run that allowed the Huskies to lead by nine, 61-52. The spurt coincided with a drought of more than 2 minutes for the Lady Vols (9-3). Tennessee rallied to 63-61 before Bueckers shot off a pass from Westbrook.
Christyn Williams led UConn with 20 points. Westbrook added 15 and Aubrey Griffin scored 10.
Rae Burrell scored 14 of her 18 points in the first half to lead Tennessee. Rennia Davis scored 11 and Marta Suarez and Tamari Key each had 10 points.
A crowd of 3,553 watched the game in Thompson-Boliing Arena, the largest crowd to see a women's basketball game anywhere in the country this season. The previous high was 3,500 at South Carolina (five times).
“Connecticut's a really good basketball team,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, “We thought we could have won the game. When you can't pull those off, it stings.”
Davis, a leader of the Vols, had just two points in the first half. Four straight third-quarter points gave Tennessee a lead it maintained through the period. The Vols were in charge, 49-45, heading into the fourth quarter.
Burrell hit a couple 3s in the first quarter and had 14 at halftime to lead Tennessee to a 35-34 edged at the break. Key had eight points to help the cause.
Bueckers' 3-pointer was a “coming of age” moment, according to Auriemma.
“That was a rough first outing for Paige in a tough environment,” Auriemma said. “She's a pass-first player. She reminds me of that every day. If she ever becomes a more selfish player, we're going to be a better team.”
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper and her UConn counterpart Geno Auriemma showed just how seriously they value this meeting of legendary programs and the charities it benefits.
Each of the coaches donated $10,000 that would be shared between the Pat Summitt Foundation, which educates the public and conducts research for Alzheimer's disease, and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, which is in Knoxville.
UConn: Auriemma is spending this season chasing Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer for the all-time most wins in women's college basketball. VanDerveer entered Thursday night with 1,105 victories while Auriemma now has 1,100.
Tennessee: Last week, the Vols came back from a one-point loss to Georgia with a 26-point rout of Alabama. How they process the loss to UConn will be critical in the stretch drive of their season.
UConn: The Huskies' visit to Tennessee was just UConn's third game since Dec. 30. The Huskies will entertain Georgetown Saturday.
Tennessee: After a brief venture outside the SEC, the Vols will take on Kentucky at home Sunday.