No surprises in days 1 and 2 of AAC Tournament

Morgan Tuck lead Connecticut with 16 points over East Carolina Saturday. Photo by Steven Slade.
Morgan Tuck lead Connecticut with 16 points over East Carolina Saturday. Photo by Steven Slade.

The American Athletic Conference holds its Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. This has the advantage of bringing decent crowds to the tournament, as UConn fans will usually watch at least parts of the games that precede and follow the Huskies’ contests. That said, the arena is a great place to play and to watch basketball, with no bad seats, great lighting, free parking, and a dozen decent restaurants on-site. Even without UConn involved on the first day, there were close to 3,000 fans in the stands for the afternoon games, far more than many of the teams see at their home courts all year.

The tournament structure is conducive to some pretty good basketball. The first day, Friday, pitted the six lower half teams against each other. The first two games Saturday proved to be very good basketball, with the end in doubt late into the first game, and decided in overtime in the second. Saturday’s early game was a back-and-forth affair between the fourth and fifth seeds. UConn followed with a typical blowout, and #2 USF did the same. The late game was a 40-minute battle, but really was over by halftime.

Here’s how the games played out.

Day One

It can be lonely on press row in the first day of this tournament. For long periods on Friday, I shared the sideline with the TV and radio folks, coaches scouting the next opponent, and well, nobody. Not a lot of coverage on this day that matched teams with losing records against each other. Which is a shame, because among themselves, these teams – except maybe Houston – can play some pretty competitive basketball. It’s a fun day if you are a fan. This day confirmed that impression, with a close game early, and an exciting overtime in the early evening. The nightcap? Not so much.

Random observations: Kudos to SMU for bringing cheerleaders and the band with them: it shows a commitment to the program that may lead to better teams in the future.

Game 1: #8 East Carolina 70 –  #9 Cincinnati 61

The AAC tournament opened at 4 p.m. on a weekday, as East Carolina and Cincinnati met for the right to face UConn tomorrow. These are two athletic teams with low shooting percentages. Defensive breakdowns and turnovers led to many of the East Carolina scores in the first half. Cincinnati relied mostly on Jasmine Whitfield, who scored 11 in the half, including three threes. After two quarters, East Carolina had opened a 35-21 lead, shooting 46 percent.

The third quarter was static with Cincinnati closing by two, but they made it a contest in the fourth quarter slicing the lead to three with five minutes remaining. They couldn’t capitalize. More surprising, with the deficit up to six at exactly three minutes, the Bearcats showed no urgency, waiting at half-court to organize a set play and burning precious clock. A few key baskets by ECU’s Jada Payne and a few defensive errors seized the victory for East Carolina. Cincinnati shot over 48 percent in the half, but could not manage enough defensive stops to prevail. In a good sign for next season, little-used freshman forward Chelsea Warren tallied nine points and six boards in 20 minutes for the Bearcats. Whitfield had 19 for Cincinnati, while senior Jada Payne scored 26 on 9-13 shooting for East Carolina, holding off the Cincinnati charge.

Game 2: #7 SMU 83 –  #10 Central Florida 74 (OT)

Central Florida scored its second field goal at 3:52. Not a recipe for success.

SMU took the ball inside successfully in the early going to 6-5 Stephanie Collins and 6-3 Alicia Froling, who each had six points in a first quarter that SMU controlled 17-11. SMU’s 2-3 zone and superior height stymied UCF’s offense to start, but by mid-way through the second quarter, Central Florida solved it with high-post passing, quick cuts along the baseline, and hitting an uncharacteristic number of threes (classic approaches), to pull within one, 25-24 at 4:01. Despite winning the rebound battle, SMU contributed to the comeback with 11 turnovers. Central Florida took the lead on the fourth three of the half, this one by Kayla Thigpen. The Knights guarded their advantage to close the half ahead 34-29.

In the second half, the Central Florida’s intensity contrasted markedly with the SMU posts who trotted (maybe it was a jog) down court on offense, trailing their point guard by 30 feet. Central Florida also turned up their player-to-player defense, and SMU responded with ever more turnovers. By the end of the third quarter, the Knights had stretched their lead to 10, 54-44.

SMU seemed to get an energy boost in the fourth quarter, but Central Florida matched it, and continued their un-accustomed accuracy from beyond the arc to keep the lead at ten. SMU’s renewed energy and attention to ball security, coupled with Central Florida’s missed free throws, cut the lead to just two with a minute remaining, and things were suddenly exciting. A key stop and an inside bucket by Dai’ja Thomas with 2.3 seconds on the clock tied the score and sent the game to overtime. This is why these games are worth watching.

SMU’s Thomas seemed to be everywhere in the overtime, preserving possessions and hitting several key second-chance buckets. Central Florida managed the overtime poorly. Down six with under a minute remaining, they did not seem to have a quick-score plan. They allowed an extra 15 seconds to run off  after a miss before fouling. Desperation threes were ineffective, and the Knights could not close a widening gap. SMU dominated the overtime to win 83-74.

The comeback allowed the band to return for another day. It also put an uncontrolled smile of joy on the face of MU Senior point guard Gabby Williams, who was literally giggling with happiness in the post-game press conference. Coach Rhonda Rompola, retiring this season was thrilled for her team.

“Our kids haven’t experienced a lot of joy in the last few weeks,” she said, “and it’s wonderful to see them get some joy from the game.” The joy of a great comeback will last a while, but it is unlikely that it will be boosted against South Florida on Saturday.

Game 3: #6 Tulsa 76 –  #11 Houston 38

Tulsa’s seniors were sure they wanted to spend two days here. Guards Ashley Clark and Kelsee Grovey combined for 33 points and 18 boards, and the Golden Hurricane defense held Houston to just 28 percent shooting. Tulsa cruised to an easy victory, crushing Houston  with a 13-6 second period and a dominating 25-3 fourth. The victory was Tulsa’s first in three seasons of the AAC. Clark gets the prize for best quote of the day: asked how much she wanted the season to continue, she quipped “on a scale of one to ten – one hundred!”

Tulsa moved on to face #3 Temple in Saturday’s late game.

DAY TWO

Game 4 : #5 Tulane 70 – #4 Memphis 64

Four versus five games are even more fun than eight versus nine games, for the obvious reason that the teams are evenly matched. The early game on the AAC tournament’s second day was a perfect example, featuring seven lead changes and eight ties, and was the only game won by a lower seed so far in the tournament.  Tulane dominated the first quarter, 20-12 with aggressive drives to the basket and an attacking defense that kept Memphis off-balance. Memphis regrouped at the break and reversed the fortunes in a dramatic way, taking the lead with a 20-10 run in the second to take a 32-30 lead into the locker room.

Memphis led by as many as eight points in the third, but Tulane’s Kolby Morgan kept them in the hunt as she did all game, and the Green Wave took over the lead again, 51-50, on the final bucket of the quarter.  The tension was not over, as Memphis came back from a deficit of as many as 7, to tie the game at 62 with just 1:31 remaining. The Green Wave hit eight straight free throws over the last to close out the scoring.

Tulane reached 21 wins, but given their weak out of conference, that number is unlikely to be enough for an NCAA selection. Unless, of course, they defeat UConn on Sunday.

Game 5: #1 UConn 92 – #8 East Carolina 51

Morgan Tuck and Katie Lou Samuelson led five Huskies in double figures with 16 points each, and UConn outrebounded East Carolina 42-20, as the Huskies cruised to another blowout victory to open their tournament play. UConn won its 30th game of the season, the 22nd time Geno Auriemma’s teams have done so in the last 24 years. Connecticut shot nearly 60 percent for the game, and recovered from consecutive slow starts with a 32-13 first quarter. Breanna Stewart added 15 points, eight boards, and Gabby Williams had 15 points in 19 minutes.

“When we have Stewie, Moriah and Tuck playing at the level they are playing right now it is fun to watch,” coach Geno Auriemma said.

That is so true. Watching these three has been a pleasure for four years, and there is obviously more to come. East Carolina seniors Jada Payne and I’Tania Taylor closed out their careers with 16 and 14 points respectively. UConn faces #5 Tulane on Sunday at 4:30pm (ESPNU).

Game 6: #2 South Florida 73 – #7 SMU 60

Courtney Williams scored 18 of South Florida’s first 20 points, an AAC record for points in a quarter. SMU turned the ball over eight times in the first quarter, leading to 11 points. Although the Mustangs dominated the paint with their multiple bigs, South Florida led 23-15 after one quarter. The Bulls diversified the scoring in the second quarter, taking a ten point lead out of the break and holding it throughout most of the second quarter. SMU failed to register that Williams was killing them, as they continued to try to single-cover her, a losing proposition for every player in the AAC not named Moriah Jefferson. Williams is the three-time scoring leader in the league, and nobody can fully shut her down. SMU did not even slow her down, and she closed out the half with 24 points and her team leading 39-23. Gabrielle Wilkins led SMU with 10 in the half, but Williams and the 13 Mustang turnovers gave South Florida a substantial lead by halftime at 39-23. SMU would not allow that lead to feel safe.

SMU turned up the tempo and the pressure to open the second half, shaving the deficit to 12 points early. Defensive lapses and those pesky turnovers kept them in check. Meanwhile, Williams deferred to the South Florida bench, which scored 14 of their 16 points in the third quarter.

SMU played with tremendous energy to close within 10 points several times in the fourth quarter. They missed too many free throws, and too many open shots to get any closer. The Bulls converted SMU’s 22 turnovers into 25 points.

South Florida Coach Jose Fernandez was disappointed that he could not rest his starters as the team faces a possible three games in three days. But SMU never let up.

“That first 20 minutes was a pretty good half,” Fernandez said. “But SMU just wouldn’t go away. We rested Laura Ferreira, but we just couldn’t extend and pull away from them. That’s why we had to play Courtney [Williams] and Alicia [Jenkins] in the fourth quarter.”

Williams set a new tournament record with 29 points. Adriana Pujol scored another 16 off the bench for South Florida. Junior Morgan Bolton had 15 points and 7 rebounds to lead SMU, and fellow guard Wilkins added 15 and 6 in the loss.

#2 South Florida faces #3 Temple at 6:30pm Sunday.

Game 7: #3 Temple 78 – #6 Tulsa 52

The first thought as the ball went up was “these two teams look like really fit high schoolers.’ The tallest player in the starting lineups was 6-1. And the start of the game looked a bit like high school as well: the two teams missed eight consecutive layups and turned the ball over Three times before anyone actually scored. The speed of the game, however, looked nothing like high school. These are very quick teams, and open shots were rare in the first period. After the first media timeout, Temple seemed to settle a bit, spreading the floor better and hitting the inside shots. The frenetic quarter ended with Temple leading 17-10. Neither team made a field goal in the final two minutes.

The pace of the game was impressive, but it became clear that Tulsa was a half-step slower at both ends of the floor. They were unable to penetrate passed the tight Temple defense, and their offensive futility left them out of the game by the half. Temple sophomore Tanaya Atkinson found seams in the Tulsa defense, and mixed in a mid-range jump shot to lead all scorers at the half with 16 points on 5-5 shooting. She also led both teams with 6 rebounds. Temple shot 42% for the half, despite all the missed layups. Tulsa was just 8-31 (25 percent), and scored only four field goals in the second period. Temple went to the locker room up 17 points, 36-17.

Tulsa came out with better movement on offense, scoring three consecutive buckets. Unfortunately, they followed those possessions with two turnovers, both leading to Temple scores. Both teams improved their scoring in the 3rd quarter. Temple closed out the period at 50 percent for the game, leading 60-40.

Temple owes me something in this game. Immediately after I commented to my media neighbor that they were a poor three-point shooting team, they hit threes on four consecutive possessions, to lead 69-40 with 8:27 left in the game. With the big lead, Temple Coach Tanya Cardoza  rested Tanaya Atkinson for most of the second half. The pace slowed noticeably as the game drew to a close, as both teams looked tired. Five Owls scored in double figures, led by Atkinson’s 20. Tulsa’s Ashley Clark closed out her career with 18.

Cardoza thought her team had taken an important step tonight by building on a half-time lead against a tenacious opponent.

“In the past we didn’t know how to put teams away,” she explained. “We’ve had some bad third quarters all year.”

This night, the Owls kept the pressure on, and never allowed Tulsa back in the game.

Next up for Temple is a South Florida team with whom they split the season series. It should be among the best games of the tournament. “I’m just hoping it’s going to be a battle,” Cardoza said. “It was a battle at our place, and at their place it was a dog fight.” With Atkinson and Williams playing at a very high level, Sunday’s late game should be exciting to watch. This victory would, in a fair world without too many tournament upsets in other conferences, give Temple a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. A win on Sunday would guarantee it.

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