AAC Championship : #1 UConn 77– #2 South Florida 51
UConn played its 26th conference championship game in the last 28 years Monday night. The Huskies have won 20 of those match ups, and took the court looking for number 21. South Florida joined them in the final for the second straight season.
The Huskies were also looking for their 69th straight victory. They have never lost an American Conference game. South Florida, however, has never had a better season. They have been ranked all year, hovering between No. 18 and No. 21. The Bulls lost to UConn 75-59 at home in January and 79-59 last Monday, but UConn entered the game 19-0 against South Florida overall. UConn, of course, has been hovering at No. 1 since pre-season.
Add one to each of those numbers. After a slow(-ish) start, UConn crushed the Bulls in classic Husky post-season fashion, dominating on defense and putting on a second-half show on offense to demoralize a talented and tough South Florida team.
The game began sloppily, with both teams showing what may have been nerves. UConn settled for, and missed a bunch of jump shots early, a real contrast from the stunning success of Sunday, when they hit their first nine shots. This day began with three misses and three turnovers in the first six possessions before Moriah Jeffeson hit a three at 6:54. South Florida was similarly sloppy (2 TOs), but their stars, Courtney Williams and Alicia Jenkins each hit shots for a 5-0 lead before Jefferson’s bucket. Breanna Stewart’s first attempt was an airball from beyond the arc.
South Florida is a confident team, and is certainly not afraid to challenge UConn. They have great quickness from Shalethia Stringfield and Williams. Their guards shoot the three well, and Williams can be held in check only by denying her the ball. Jenkins, the league’s leading rebounder, surprised by taking and hitting a pair of threes in the half. For the second time this year, South Florida led UConn after ten minutes. It didn’t last.
As the second period opened, the Huskies began to get the ball inside, fought harder on the boards, and took their first lead at 6:48 on a traditional three-point play by Stewart. UConn was not shooting well, but can always rely on the defense. Against this very quick South Florida team, the Huskies forced three shot-clock violations in the second period, and many rushed shots. The Bulls defense shut down the Husky fast break in return, forcing them into a half-court offense. Which they ran very well, working their way to a 36-24 lead. After a slow start, UConn finished the half shooting over 50 percent.
The teams began the second half trading baskets, with South Florida working much harder. Stewart and then Tuck established themselves deep in the paint. Then, suddenly, the UConn loosened up the game and found the fast break. Coach Jose Fernandez was forced to call a timeout after Kia Nurse hit a three off a fast break to make the score 47-28 four minutes in. Williams finally hit her second bucket – a three – at 4:53 to “cut” the Husky lead to 16. And then she hit another, off a backcourt steal. And an inside two on the next possession. UConn neutralized each score with one of their own. And then the Husky defense clamped down as only this team can. Like Sunday’s offense, UConn’s second half defense at times approached perfect. It’s a philosophy, and every year by March, the team seems to have it down.
“The thing we talk about all the time,” Coach Geno Auriemma explained. “We just want to give ourselves a chance to win. If we play defense like the way we played it in the second half, then we’re always going to have a chance to win. And then how much we win by depends on how many shots we make.”
“So if a lot of shots don’t go in, then we’re going to win by a little. Because our defense gives us a chance to win. If we make a lot of shots, like we did in the second half, then we’re going to win by a lot. So, it starts on the defensive end, and it carries over to the offensive end. And we just need like a five minute run and that kind of gets us some separation. And then that puts a lot of pressure on the other team to make a lot of shots.”
With the defense working to perfection, UConn transitioned into the sort of offensive zone that strikes fear into the rest of women’s basketball. In the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, they composed a 12-3 run, and the game was hopeless. A resilient South Florida team knew it, and you could see the fatigue of the last three games physically manifest itself.
UConn shot 66.7 percent in the second half, 58.9 percent for the game. South Florida lost all offensive flow in the face of UConn’s defense, dribbling around and unable to escape into the open for shots. The lead grew and grew. South Florida was held to 37 percent shooting in each half. When the UConn seniors left the game at 2:36, the score was 73-47. South Florida’s starters stayed in the game, but made little headway. The final score was 77-51.
Despite all the championships, UConn still considers each one, even in a league they totally dominate, an important one. They work harder than any other team. No matter the opponent. An they like the results.
“Winning a championship is supposed to be hard,” Auriemma said. “I don’t care at what level. You’re playing for a championship: it’s supposed to be hard, and South Florida makes it hard. They make it really, really hard, and I think a game like that just reminds you, this is what we’re going to face the rest of the month. This is what it’s going to be like. And I like the fact that when were are put in that situation, we respond.”
Next up for UConn: the top seed in the NCAA tournament, they will play the first two rounds at Gampel Pavilion on the UConn campus. They will get to stay in Connecticut in the Bridgeport regional for the next two games. Then, in all likelihood, they will be on their way to their ninth straight Final Four in Indianapolis.
South Florida will be a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NCAAs, and probably will win at least two games. This is a very good team, with quickness and excellent shooting.
“South Florida’s really good,” Auriemma opined. “If they’re healthy, they’re gonna be really good in the tournament, like they were last year. And the year before.”
The All-Tournament team:
Breanna Stewart, MVP, UConn
Moriah Jefferson, UConn
Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn
Morgan Tuck, UConn
Shalethia Stringfield, South Florida
Courtney Williams, South Florida