No. 1 UConn hammers St. John's in Big East quarterfinals, but loses freshman Nika Muhl to injury

UNCASVILLE — UConn coach Geno Auriemma wasn’t sure how his much-acclaimed freshmen would handle their first postseason experience.

It certainly didn’t take long to get an answer.

If there were any nerves, the top-ranked Huskies showed no signs of them, cruising past eighth-seeded St. John’s 77-41 in the Big East quarterfinals Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“I think everyone that we put in the game today contributed,” Auriemma said. “I didn’t see anything that looked like apprehension because, ‘Oh my God, it’s the postseason, it’s the tournament.’ That was pretty cool to see that they just played like it was a basketball game that we had to win.”

The Huskies (22-1, 19-0) advanced to Sunday’s semifinals, where they’ll play fifth-seeded Villanova at 3 p.m.

UConn was balanced offensively and stifling on the defensive end, all the while owning the paint, in a wire-to-wire victory. Three players scored in double figures, led by 17 points from freshman Paige Bueckers. Christyn Williams contributed 14 points and fellow junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa added 10 points and 11 rebounds, all in the first half.

The win didn’t come without a loss, though — that of point guard Nika Muhl, who sprained her left ankle after stepping on a defender’s foot midway through the third quarter. The freshman had played well to that point, with five points, four rebounds and four steals.

Muhl returned to the bench shortly after on crutches and with her foot heavily wrapped. Auriemma said he didn’t know the severity of the injury.

“Nika is a pretty tough kid, as tough as they come,” Auriemma said. “If I were to bet … Nika’s going to give it every opportunity overnight, and then she’s going to try to play.

“If she doesn’t play, it’s because it’s serious. We’ll know a little bit more later.”

Muhl’s departure coincided with the return of sophomore Anna Makurat, who had been out since Jan. 21 with a stress fracture in her lower leg. Makurat looked rusty, committing three fouls and two turnovers in 11 minutes.

“Obviously having another ball handler and having another passer, another perimeter player, especially in case Nika can’t go, couldn’t come at a better time,” Auriemma said.

UConn got going early, using a 15-2 run to seize a 24-6 lead in the second quarter. St. John’s went more than six minutes without scoring during that stretch. All-Big East guard Leilani Correa, who had missed her first seven shots, ended the run of futility with a jumper.

Minutes later, the Huskies strung together a separate 14-2 spurt to make it 38-12. The lead was 38-15 at half and stretched to as many as 41.

“It’s survive and advance,” Bueckers said. “Every game means so much. Just having that sense of urgency on offense and defense and making sure that we do whatever it takes to win, that’s really big for us.”

Muhl set a tone defensively, and her teammates followed. The Huskies held St. John’s (8-15, 5-13) to 27% shooting and forced 21 turnovers, converting those into 32 points on the other end. Correa, who came in averaging 18.1 points, went 3 of 18 from the field and scored only seven.

“She means so much to the team on and off the floor,” Nelson-Ododa said of Muhl. “Especially in today’s game, she just brought a certain edge, a certain aggressiveness that we needed to start off with. … It’s hard to see her go out like that, but we know she’s tough and that she’s going to be able to come back.”

Note: Bueckers was named one of 15 candidates for the John R. Wooden Award, given to the national player of the year.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour