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Bridgeport Regional : No upsets here as UConn dominates; Texas survives

Brooke McCarty (11) sees Ariel Atkins (24) for the pass. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

No. 1 UConn 98, No. 5 Mississippi State 38

Breanna Stewart (30) drives past Mississippi State’s Chinwe Okorie (45) for a layup and a foul to score. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

The day after upset Friday – the most dramatic day in women’s tournament history – the question of course was “can someone do it here?”

For Mississippi State, the answer was clearly “no.” Three minutes into the contest the score was 11-0, and UConn was 4-5 from the floor, which included two fast-break buckets. Everything Bulldogs coach Vic Shaefer had schooled his team to avoid took place, and it never got any better. In a masterful, nearly perfect performance on offense and defense, the Huskies crushed their opponents by the largest margin in Sweet Sixteen history.

MSU found open shots early, but failed to convert. As UConn’s vaunted defense adjusted, the open shots were fewer, and the Bulldogs still could not convert. The first MSU bucket was scored at 5:47 in the first quarter, and the second at 1:27. UConn led 32-4 after 10 minutes.

Breanna Stewart (30) of UConn blocks the shot of Mississippi State’s Breanna Richardson (3) as she attempts to score a basket. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

The Huskies have a history of shutting down the opponent’s best offensive player, and this contest was no different. Victoria Vivians, who scored 43 points in the first two rounds of the tournament for the Bulldogs, was 0-6 in the first quarter of this game. UConn also crushed MSU on the boards, 15-7 in the first quarter.

Things changed very little in the second period, except that UConn subbed out it’s starters for extended periods. In the half, UConn out-rebounded MSU 27-9, and had 34 points in the paint and forced 12 turnovers. Why? The Huskies simply never take a second off. Up 40, the best player in the country is diving to the court after a loose ball. They never stop moving on offense. They recover and switch almost seamlessly on defense. They simply overwhelm their opponents.

UConn Coach Geno Auriemma reacts to an unbelievable shot by Husky All American Breanna Stewart. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

“We have got some seniors that have played a lot of games,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “They have played in a lot of big games. And when they show up and play the way they played today, it’s hard for anybody to play against us. I’m probably as surprised as anybody about the final score. But when it’s like that, when we’re playing the way we played, and defensively, it just – I mean, our offense was one thing, but the way we played defense today was pretty magnificent.”

Breanna Stewart scored 18 points on 8-10 shooting, 2-2 from three, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked three shots for the Huskies in the half. Morgan Tuck had 19 points on 7-8 shooting. and Katie Lou Samuelson had 10 points.

One question asked on media day was answered: UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson is in fact quicker than MSU point guard Morgan William. Schaefer had suggested that his point guard might be faster.

Katie Lou Samuelson (33) of UConn reacts after scoring a basket and being fouled for a 3 point play. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

To their credit, MSU came out with renewed energy and a plan to get inside on the Huskies, either by post positioning, or dribble drives. They drew some early fouls, but failed to convert the free throws. Then UConn adjusted, and the scoring basically stopped. By the end of the third period, Connecticut was playing no more than two starters at a time, and the bench was still holding MSU largely in check. To his credit, Schaefer also substituted to give his bench players some experience in this atmosphere.

Score after three quarters: 84-20. “Magnificent” indeed.

Both teams used the fourth period to give their bench players experience and opportunity. MSU actually outscored the UConn third team for the final, unexciting ten minutes.

No. 2 Texas 72, No. 3 UCLA 64

UCLA’s Monique Billings and Texas’ Imani Boyette battle for the rebound. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

Disorganized. Imprecise. Defenseless. Inaccurate. At times this contest looked like a November non-conference warmup. But this is the Sweet Sixteen. We have seen over the last two days teams that played to the best of their abilities: Tennessee, Stanford, UConn, Syracuse. Not so much in this game. Both UCLA and Texas appeared to be off-kilter from the start. That both teams were out of sync kept the game close and competitive, but it was ugly basketball throughout.

Guards for the two teams were evenly-matched, and very active on both sides. But they seemed unable to get the ball to the post at the right time in the right place. UCLA did a good job countering the Texas advantage in post size with post athleticism. UCLA’s greater aggressiveness and quickness regularly put them on the line, and 24 of their points came from there. Late in the game, however, they couldn’t find the basket, and couldn’t get it into the post. That’s a big reason they are back on the West Coast tonight.

Brooke McCarty drives for the bucket. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

The Bruins led by as many as ten points early in the second period, but in a game with many missed shots, and only occasional effective passing, the game remained unpredictable. The lead changed five times in the half, which ended with the score UCLA 33 – Texas 28.

As the fourth period opened, Texas began to defend more effectively, and began to force UCLA deep into the shot clock. The Bruins cooperated by standing around, failing to counter the pressure. As the quarter progressed, the Longhorns looked more like a No. 2 seed, attacking the basket successfully and taking a seven point lead midway through the period. They could not, however, put UCLA away. With a five point lead and three minutes remaining, Texas began to burn clock, leading to a shot-clock violation. But the Bruins were unable to counter-attack, flinging up the first shot available on subsequent possessions rather than trying to run scoring offense.

Ariel Atkins (24) and Nirra Fields (21) fight for a loose ball. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

With 1:34 remaining, the Longhorns had the ball and a seven-point advantage. Although they missed nearly half of their free throws (7-12) as UCLA began to foul, the Bruins did not manage a field goal – though they did hit four free-throws – the rest of the way, and Texas held on to win, 72-64.

Though the score remained close for most of the game, Texas prevailed by getting their team play together during the fourth quarter. A big part of the win was the focus the Longhorns brought to rebounding in the second half, a plus-11 after a minus-5 in the first half.

Imani Boyette lead Texas with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty added 16 and 15, respectively.

Brooke McCarty (11) sees Ariel Atkins (24) for the pass. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

“I think that the difference definitely was rebounds,” Boyette said. “They were whipping our butt in the first half in rebounds. Our coaches were telling us about that. It wasn’t anything I did, like personally, it was just a team effort. When we helped, we had to slide down and make sure we boxed out their post players.”

“We got away from boxing out in the first half. And in the second half, we tried to make sure that everyone was boxing out and everyone was taking a part of the rebound game.”

Texas returns to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003. UConn has missed the Elite Eight only once since 1991. They are seeking their ninth straight Final Four.

Bridgeport notes: The arena is a great venue for fans. No seat is obstructed. Most are close to the action. Husky fans from the southern part of the state filled it on this day, with what appeared to be a sellout at 8848 attendance.

What’s up for Monday?

Almost certainly, a UConn victory. The Huskies defeated Texas last season in the Sweet 16 by 51 points. This year might not be as great, but it should be definitive. Auriemma says the Elite 8 is the hardest game psychologically, because it’s the game that gets you to the Final Four. That hurdle, however, is old news for the UConn seniors, who have made it every year. Looking at how the teams played today, it would take a phenomenal collapse for UConn to lose.

This Huskies team is trying to stamp itself as the best of all time, for many reasons. Texas Coach Karen Aston said the Huskies are a complete unit.

“I think that’s what makes them so good is that every player on their team is explosive, every player is terrific offensively,” Aston said. “But on the flip side of that, what is more impressive in person than that is, on film, . . . what’s the most impressive is their length defensively. They just, you really have to have some patience.”

Texas did not have patience in last year’s drubbing. They did not have much patience today until the fourth quarter. They need to hope that somehow they can be both patient with their shots and find a way to control tempo.

But these UConn seniors are on a mission. They are playing so well that Auriemma, who has seen a few good teams, was awed.

“When we started out playing the way we did today, I was taken aback myself,” he said. “That’s one of the top defensive teams in the country, right? And I was just – I knew they would have a hard time guarding Stewie and Tuck. I knew that, because they’re just not used to seeing players like that.”

“But I….even told them during the timeout, and I never do this…..‘Man, you guys are really good.’ I was just caught up in it all. I said ‘you guys are really good.'”

I’ve covered the Huskies for 20 years now, and I have never heard Auriemma say that. It is easy to see why he might, however, with this team. When they are focused and hitting their shots, they may play the most beautiful basketball ever. Monday will my last live game this season. I apologize for breaking the media rule and being biased, but I don’t want that beauty to stop. I want to see it go to Indianapolis for a few more games. I expect to get my wish.

Looking even farther forward, I am mystified by ESPN’s mantra that “UConn’s road just got a lot easier.” Well, the two No 1 seeds that lost Friday are teams that UConn has already defeated. The team they would meet in the semifinal (if they beat Texas on Monday) is most likely a team they haven’t played – and which may be the hardest match-up for them physically – Baylor, which lost exactly one game this season, and moved on to the Elite 8 last year with a 20-point win of their own.

Sure, if UConn meets and beats Baylor, the teams remaining on the other side all have 7-13 losses, and might be easier than expected. But whoever is on that side of the bracket also will have won their way to the Final game. Nobody at that level is a pushover. Auriemma can remember 1997, when a 10-loss Tennessee team beat the Huskies in the semifinal game.

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