Playing its third game without Katie Lou Samuelson in the American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals Sunday, UConn defeated South Florida, 81-45, behind 24 points from Megan Walker and 23 points and 12 rebounds from Napheesa Collier.
The top-seeded Huskies dominated the game on both ends of the court until coach Geno Auriemma pulled most of his starters early in the fourth quarter with a 75-31 lead.
Freshman Sydni Harvey led USF with 13 points. The Bulls had played well in the first two games of the tournament, reaching the semifinals for the fifth straight season from an unaccustomed fifth seed. But they ran up against an inspired UConn team and lost to them in the tournament for the fifth time. The previous four had all been in the final.
Last Monday, in a regular-season game, USF was within a bucket of the Huskies in the fourth quarter, and had a chance to defeat them for the first time, but lost by 10. In their rematch six days later, the Bulls had no answer for a Husky squad that was suddenly playing at a high level after a month of sub-par performances.
It was clear from the tip-off that UConn team had committed to raising their intensity, and they showed focus and energy immediately, moving the ball crisply from side to side and getting into the gaps in the USF-packed zone.
Defensively, they succeeded in forcing the normally methodical Bulls offense to speed up in part by using a full court press from the first possession.
Collier conceded that the team had been underperforming in recent games.
“We knew we had to come out with a different mindset than especially yesterday and our past couple games,” she said. “I think we were really focused from the beginning, and so we had this success today.”
Auriemma has complained about his team’s poor defense all year, but in this contest, the Huskies blanketed their opponents on every cut and contested every pass, successfully denying any easy looks. Their active and smothering defense held the Bulls to two field goals and 14 percent shooting in the first quarter. UConn led 19-5 after 10 minutes.
The coach grudgingly acknowledged the improved defensive effort.
“Obviously our approach today was a little bit different than last Monday”, he said. ”Our defense kind of set the tone for everything that happened the rest of the game. We were really locked in right from the beginning. And that created a lot of great opportunities for us at the other end.”
Collier led the Huskies in the first half, scoring 18 points, including 2-3 from beyond the arc. She also grabbed 7 rebounds. Megan Walker showed her increasing confidence, shooting short jumpers as well as threes, tallying 10 points in the half. The Huskies shot 60.7 percent in the first half, and went into the locker room leading 41-15.
The second half was more of the same. UConn moved well on offense, finding open shots or completing contested ones, while frustrating the USF offensively, which forced them to speed up their play just as they had in the first half. But this time, they found themselves with a defender in front of them on nearly every move. After three periods, the Huskies led by 38, and the game was effectively over.
Bulls coach Jose Fernandez leads a team that lost its two senior leaders to injury, and which started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, none of whom were starters on opening day. The loss was disappointing, but hardly a surprise.
“They played at a different pace than we did,” he said. “We didn’t defend that well, and they hit a lot of open shots.”
Auriemma rested his starters in the fourth period, never leaving more than one on the floor at a time.
The Huskies will face UCF in the final tomorrow, at 7 p.m. They have beaten the Knights twice this year, by 36 and 37 points.