SAN ANTONIO – UConn did just fine without coach Geno Auriemma.
Paige Bueckers led the way with another stellar performance.
Bueckers scored 24 points — the most by a UConn player in her first NCAA Tournament game — and the top-seeded Huskies routed High Point 102-59 in the first round Sunday.
Auriemma is recovering from the coronavirus and missed the opener. Associate head coach Chris Dailey filled in for the Hall of Famer, who is also going to miss the second-round game against Syracuse on Tuesday.
“We just want to continue to win for him so he can get out here with us,” Bueckers said. “It's different, I could hear Coach in my ear yelling, I know he was yelling at the TV and yelling at me."
Dailey is 11-0 filling in for Auriemma over their time together at UConn (25-1). The Huskies also were missing assistant coach Shea Ralph, who left San Antonio after one of her relatives contracted COVID-19.
It didn’t make much of a difference. The Huskies cruised behind their star freshman.
“It feels obviously really different not having Geno and Shea here," Dailey said. “But we’re a program that ‘Hey next guy’s up’ and don’t worry about who’s not here. That goes the same with injuries. We don’t focus on that. ... So far, so good.”
Bueckers, the third player ever to make first-team All-America as a freshman, had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists at the half as UConn led 53-29. She had one of the best debuts for storied UConn in the tourney, also finishing with nine rebounds, six assists and four steals. Her 24 points passed the previous mark by a freshman of 22 by Katie Lou Samuelson.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa added 22 points.
It wasn't all good news for the Huskies. Freshman guard Nika Muhl stepped on the foot of Chyna McMichel, spraining her right ankle in the second quarter. She had to be helped off the court and her ankle was heavily wrapped.
She walked on crutches to the locker room at the half and was shown on TV with her head in her hands in front of the locker room. Muhl injured her left ankle in the Big East Tournament opener, but returned for the Huskies' game the next night.
“Nika’s still getting looked at by our trainer,” Dailey said. “She’s going back to the hotel to get some treatment and we’ll know more in the morning.”
While there weren't many highlights for the Panthers (22-7), who were playing in their first NCAA Tournament, they did take a 3-2 lead when Big South Player of the Year Skyler Curran hit a deep 3 from close to 10 feet behind the arc. UConn promptly answered with the next eight points and the rout was on.
Curran led the Panthers with 14 points. The team was 9 for 34 on 3s, many from way behind the arc.
“I think that was a little bit of improv from some of the players," High Point coach Chelsea Banbury said. “Skyler can knock down the deep shot, she’s been doing it all season. Some of it was we were playing UConn. We were getting a little uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily the shots we want.”
UConn had a group hug before the game around teammate Saylor Poffenbarger. Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of her younger brother Fordham's death in an ATV accident when he was 4. Poffenbarger, who was 6 at the time of his death, wears No. 4 at UConn in honor of him.
“Just to be able to be there for her and crowd around her and support her, give her what she needs, it just means everything,” freshman Aaliyah Edwards said.
Poffenbarger played two minutes and missed her one shot attempt.
UConn has won 234 consecutive games against non-ranked opponents since losing at home to St. John's in 2012. Conversely, the Panthers fell to 0-12 all-time against ranked teams. Their closest loss was a 16-point defeat to No. 25 Vanderbilt in 2011. ... UConn finished the first half with 53 points. That's the same total the Huskies had in their last NCAA game in San Antonio when they rallied from a 20-12 halftime deficit to beat Stanford 53-47 for the 2010 title.
UConn will face Syracuse, which beat South Dakota State 72-55, in the second round.
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