USF and UConn move convincingly into their fourth straight AAC final contest

No. 2 USF 74, No. 3 UCF 59

This contest between Florida schools presented USF’s precision offense versus UCF’s stifling, pressing defense. USF’s big guards against UCF’s slightly more athletic guards. In a game that was closer than the final score, precision prevailed.

The teams felt each other out in during a first quarter that was even in every category, including the 16-16 score. Significantly, UCF forced just one turnover off the press.

Size and precision began to win out in the second quarter. USF’s guard contingent of Laia Flores and Laura Ferreira navigated firmly through the UCF press so effectively that Coach Katie Abraham-Henderson backed it off early in the period.

“We were not pressuring them on the ball hard enough to get them to come up the side line to trap so they were dribbling, jump stopping and cross-courting it,” she said. “We needed to pressure the ball way harder in order to get them to the side line so we could trap.”

Oddly, Abraham-Henderson denied ever pulling back the press, despite clear evidence on the court. You can look it up.

Katija Laska, the conference scoring leader, started 0-5, but when she got on track with consecutive threes, USF opened some space, leading by nine at one point.

USF’s defensive plan was to pack the paint, denying drives, and that strategy was effective. But UCF is a team of mid-range jump shooters. The quickness and ability to elevate of Kay Kay Wright, Aliyah Gregory and Zakiya Saunders, each shooting 50 percent or better, kept the score close going into the intermission with USF leading just 33-30.

UCF came out of the locker room determined to drive into the teeth of the USF defense. The strategy was ineffective. USF was able to block their way more often than not, and they threw awkward shots towards the hoop in frustration. The jumpshots of the first half had been more effective, but UCF largely abandoned them in the second.

USF was content to run their patient and precise offense, apparently certain that Laksa was too good to keep missing. That theory proved correct, as she hit two threes in the first four minutes, sandwiching another by Jespersen. Halfway through the third quarter, USF had opened a 14 point lead. After several empty possessions, a Saunders three and a Gregory fast break cut the lead to 49-40 going into the final stanza.

The teams traded baskets, with USF using some clock, until consecutive threes by Ferreira opened the lead to 15 at 4:52 remaining. USF kept it there more or less, despite a furious renewal of pressure from UCF that resulted in just one turnover but six free throws by USF. The combined post presence of Tamara Henshaw and Alyssa Rader scored regularly in this brief period by getting open behind the press.

The real difference in the game was Flores’ ability to break the press, forcing the game to be played in the half-court.

“I thought she did a great job finding people and she found them outside of the ball side area,”  coach Jose Fernandez said. “She looked away the post player and found Kit on the opposite end of the floor. Laura [Ferreira]’s two big threes in the fourth were huge. The one from the top and the one in the corner.”

UCF managed just nine points off turnovers. USF shot over 50 percent on the game, and scored 11 more on free throws. UCF shot an acceptable 40 percent, but the decision to drive into the defense instead of pursuing their first-half success from 12 feet was costly.

No. 1 UConn 75, No. 4 Cincinnati 21

Cincinnati, playing in its first ever semifinal, is quick but short. They are fundamentally sound defensively, and made UConn work for its points for a short time during Monday’s second semi-final. But they have never been able to compete for long with UConn, and this contest was no different. It was worse.

Aided by a sub-par UConn performance from beyond the arc, Cincinnati kept the first quarter in range. Cincinnati was unable, however, to navigate the UConn defense. To say the least.

Cincinnati scored its fifth point at 4:39 remaining in the first quarter. They did not score again before halftime. UConn ran off 34 unanswered points during that period, entering the locker room ahead 43-5. I was unable to determine if any Division I team had previously scored zero points in a quarter, but there cannot be many of them.

Shenice Johnson broke the 16:02 Cincinnati scoring drought with a three-pointer at 8:35 in the third period. Sam Rogers hit another three at 3:31. Those six points accounted for Cincinnati’s only points of the third quarter.

Meanwhile UConn did what UConn so often does. They turned Cincinnati over for fast-break buckets. They began to hit from beyond the arc. They worked the ball inside to Azura Stevens, who was so much taller than Cincinnati’s post players that she was nearly automatic. Stevens was dominant in this contest, scoring 21 points on 10-13 shooting, grabbing 13 rebounds (five offensive), and blocking four shots in 28 minutes of play.

UConn’s second team played the fourth quarter, as all the starters rested. By midway through the quarter, Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott also took her seniors out, giving next year’s team some tournament experience. Cincinnati outscored UConn 10-9 in the fourth.

The final score was 75-21.

This was UConn’s 100th AAC victory without a loss. Asked how that happened, coach Geno Auriemma had no answers.

“I have run out of ways to describe this stuff,” he said. “Today in the locker room I asked Kia (Nurse) and Gabby (Williams) how many games they have lost in college and they told me two and then I asked Katie Lou (Samuelson) how many games she had lost in college and she told me one. I told them most teams in America lose that many in a week. It must not be easy to do since we are the only team doing it.”

Notes: Gabby Williams, nursing a recurring hip injury, did not dress. Auriemma said that she could have played, but might not have been available for the final if she had. If she cannot play in the final, it will be far more competitive than previous games against USF.

Crystal Dangerfield has found her shot, and has looked more than ready to lead this team further into the post season. Her decision-making is sound, and she senses when the team needs her to be a scorer.

Four USF starters played all 40 minutes.

This was the tenth game in the tournament, and in nine of them, the officiating has been invisible, by which I mean “outstanding.”

The hosts at Mohegan Sun and the AAC have been accommodating and professional. They put on a highly organized tournament with great support and an accommodating staff. Despite this embarrassing semi-final, the competitiveness of the league improved again this season, and the fans got an entertaining weekend (plus) of basketball.

What to expect in the final on Tuesday

USF is playing very good basketball, probably the best of their season. They have chipped away at UConn’s dominance in the two previous games, losing by giving up one or two strong scoring runs. If UConn were to shoot as poorly from downtown, and if Gabby Williams cannot participate, USF has a chance to pull off the upset. The game will at least be worth watching to find out.