AAC semifinals sees predictable results as UConn, USF advance

Game 8 : #1 UConn 82– #5 Tulane 35

Sheer artistry. UConn in March (& April) over the last four years is just basketball at its best. Play after “Wow!” play. Defensive rotations that are smooth, switching and smothering an opponent. This year the Huskies feature a defense with 6-4 Katie Lou Samuelson at the top of the arc, and 6-5 Breanna Stewart blocking shots in the paint.

The opening minutes of Sunday’s American Athletic Tournament semifinal game were not quite perfect. UConn actually turned the ball over on its first possession. The Huskies followed that with nine buckets on the next nine possessions. The defense held Tulane scoreless for their first 8 possessions. The score was 14-0 when Courtnie Latham connected on a three for Tulane at 4:45. The score was 23-5 when UConn missed a shot at 2:11, and 28-10 as the first period ended.

The Huskies recognize the power of the fast start. A week ago, this same Tulane team actually won the first quarter against UConn. Not today.

“We talked a lot about [a fast start], Coach Geno Auriemma said. “ When you make shots like that, it all looks like ‘Wow! – you guys came out ready to play!’ . . . .When I watch us play like that I keep getting flashbacks to [other great UConn teams] and how many times I’ve seen that in the past. It’s really demoralizing to the other team.”

Auriemma also cautioned against taking too much from the first ten minutes.

“When you look at our film of Senior Day, we got exactly the shots we got tonight. They just went in,” he said. “Our defense was the same as it was that day. [Today,] we just played great defense and hit a lot of shots.”

With the big lead, Auriemma substituted liberally in the second period, using 10 players. Not much changed, as every combination seemed to be in sync. Tulane was not playing poorly, they were just facing the best defense in the country on a day when it was at its best. The score at the half: 50-14. UConn shot 65 percent, Tulane 24 percent.

With their stunning offense, the UConn defense gets mentioned but not described. Samuelson, long and quick is out front. Moriah Jefferson, possibly the quickest player in the game, smothers the leading scorer, with Kia Nurse available to switch. Morgan Tuck is an undersized but un-moveable post defender, and Stewart, with her height, famous 7-foot wingspan and amazing athleticism, backs it all up with blocking ability second in UConn history. And they don’t foul. No UConn player has fouled out this season, and only rarely is any player in foul trouble. The Huskies committed just four fouls against Tulane. [Fact of the day: In the last three games against UConn in the state of Connecticut, Tulane has not shot a free throw.]

How is it that UConn is the nation’s best defensive team year after year? The credit has to go to UConn’s coaching staff, and the culture of effort that they have created. The only hole documented flaw in this defensive machine is guarding the three point shot. In the closest of UConn’s non-conference games, they have given up a bunch of threes. Even this Tulane team hit seven (four against the starters) from beyond the arc. And this is the only real hope for teams who want to defeat the Huskies: hit a lot of threes, slow the game down, and pray that UConn has a poor shooting night.

That magic did not occur for Tulane on that night. Even without UConn’s starters for the entire fourth quarter, the final was 82-35. Samuelson led all scorers with 17 points on 6 of 7 shooting. Nine Huskies scored. Courtnie Latham led Tulane with 11 points, 3-4 from three.

Tulane can look forward to next year, with mostly these same players, and a year’s more experience. A few more wins would have landed them in the NCAA tournament. They will gain some post-season experience in the WNIT. UConn moves on to play South Florida at 7 p.m. Monday, with a chance for their 10th conference tournament title  in the last twelve seasons.

Shalethia Stringfield sets up the play against Temple. She finished with 20 points. Photo by Tim Clayton
Shalethia Stringfield sets up the play against Temple. She finished with 20 points. Photo by Tim Clayton

Game 9 : #2 South Florida 64– #3 Temple 46

These teams split the season, each winning at home. On the neutral tournament court, it seemed that the game should be a close one. And that’s what it became, for a half. After the break, Temple fell apart, and a close game became a bad loss – one that could cost the Owls a NCAA berth.

USF started the game more actively, feeding Alisia Jenkins for six quick points and winning the battle of the boards. At the first timeout, however, Temple regrouped, upped the intensity, and climbed back from a 12-6 deficit to take a 15-14 lead at the close of the first period.

The game was played in the paint, but by the guards. Both teams focused on drives to the basket into the teeth of the defense, resulting in a low percentage for each team. Temple, unlike Tulsa on Saturday, clearly understood Courtney Williams’ skills, trapping her coming off every screen and forcing others to take the shots. Shelethia Stringfield accepted the challenge to become the “other,” scoring 12 points in the half on 4 for 10 shooting. Tanaya Atkinson again led the Owls with 12 more efficient (6-10) points of her own.

Neither team led by more than three points in the second period. After six lead changes and six ties, USF led 29-26 at the half. All the driving into the defense, however, resulted in lots of misses: the teams shot 34 and 33 percent, and were a combined 2-17 from downtown. Williams, usually a high-volume shooter, took just four shots in the half, making one.

Temple came out of the locker room with superior energy, taking a six point lead early. The lead did not hold, however, and the third period continued at a high speed and low percentage. At the 5-minute timeout, they tide shifted in the Bulls’ favor, and it was the doing of their best player.

Williams approached press row and said to USF athletic director Mark Harlan, “I’ve been sleeping all game.” She scored the next four points and seven of the next nine. Temple, meanwhile, hit only one of their last 14 shots of the period, falling behind by six, 45-39. The fourth period was no kinder to Temple, although by their own doing. Rather than driving to the paint as they had done earlier, they heaved up threes, finishing the game 2-16 from long range.

Stingfield and Williams charged into the fourth period determined to move on to the tournament final for the third straight year. By 8:25, the USF lead was 10. Great players take over games. After her comment at the table, Williams – the Conference ScholarAthlete of the Year – scored 20 of her 22 points.

“My team was just waiting for me to get going,” she said. “I looked over, and there was Mr. Mark, . . . and I said, ‘It’s time to go now.’”

And off she went.

Stringfield finished with 20. Only Atkinson, with 17, scored in double figures for Temple. Temple shot 25 percent in the second half. They now await selection Monday, wondering if their deserving squad will be left out as they were in 2012. At 20-11, Temple is very much a bubble team.

USF plays UConn Monday at 7pm. Coach Jose Fernandez sounded less than optimistic about the outcome. “We’ve had two very good games against them. The thing that’s different for us is, we’ve logged a lot of minutes the last teo nights, and they haven’t had to do that.” But he has a point: Williams has played 70 minutes in the last two days, Stringfield 63. Breanna Stewart has played 41, and Jefferson 47.

Williams was more upbeat. “Our mind set is that they are beatable,” she said. [Last week] [w]e won the first half…. If we’d just gone bucket for bucket, we’d have won the game.”