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Connecticut, South Florida prevail in AAC semifinals

Connecticut's Crystal Dangerfield and UCF's Aliyah Gregory scramble for the ball. Photo by Steve Slade.

A clarification: I think it is really cool that American Athletic Conference assistant commissioner Barbara Jacobs swept the court between games yesterday. For Jacobs to care so much about getting things right, and for her to be willing to do even “menial” tasks to do so, is a credit to her and to the league. Apparently my phrasing in Saturday’s write up gave a different impression, and league officials were miffed. I will try to be more clear in the future.

The American, as a mid-major, has to survive on a lot less money than the big football schools, and under Jacob’s leadership, they put on a great tournament, which would be the envy of the power five conferences.

Connecticut’s Crystal Dangerfield and UCF’s Aliyah Gregory scramble for the ball. Photo by Steve Slade.

AAC semifinals, game one:

No. 1 Connecticut 78, No. 4 Central Florida 56

Central Florida entered this game with no statistical chance of victory. But the Knights didn’t get the message, and brought superior energy which led to extra possessions. By comparison, UConn looked a step slow to contested rebounds and loose balls. Winning most of the hustle plays, and converting six second-chance points in the first quarter, UCF was down just four points after ten minutes.

The Huskies seemed to get caught up in the helter-skelter pace the Knights had set, and rushed their offense, resulting in a lower shooting percentage than is their norm. UCF brought double-teams into the paint, and Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams, so deadly from inside all year, forced misses into the defenders regularly. With the paint covered, UConn settled for a series of missed threes, and the score remained close.

On the other end, the Knights had clearly chosen to limit possessions, and rarely did they take a shot with double digits on the shot clock. In response, the Husky defense closed down when Crystal Dangerfield entered the game for the still-recovering Kia Nurse, and UCF’s early hot shooting cooled off.

Nonetheless, Aliya Gregory and Zykira Lewis hit several shot clock buzzer-beaters, frustrating the UConn defenders and keeping the Knights in the game. The Knight guards also managed to protect the ball, and each team had just three turnovers for the half, a season low for a Husky opponent. UConn, which relies heavily on the fast break, had just four points off turnovers in the first twenty minutes.

The let-them-play officiating favored the UCF’s very aggressive play, and they took full advantage, bodying up the Husky players, and boxing out forcefully. UConn began to adjust, but the effort points definitely favored the Knights in the first half. The allowed contact and the disruption it caused the Husky offense led to them shooting just 39 percent for the half.

Still, UConn hit more of their shots than UCF managed to do, and the Huskies entered the locker room with a 37-25 lead, which would be seen as commanding if expectations for Connecticut were not so highly unrealistic.

UConn opened the second half on an 8-2 run, with the offense flowing more normally. The run forced Knight Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson to take an early time out, but that could not stop the Huskies.

The the torrid first half may have tired the Knights just a bit, or perhaps UConn just settled down. Whatever the reason, they forced six Knight turnovers, yielding nine points, and won the battle of the boards, 9-4 in the third. The Huskies stretched the lead to 61-37 after thirty minutes. Coach Geno Auriemma was pleased with the second half transformation by his team.

“I thought the way we responded in the third, quarter, the way we came out for the second half really was a lot of fun for me to see because our players generally respond to challenges and I though they did a great job with that,” he said.

The fourth quarter was much the same, with UConn dominant until it pulled the starters at 2:30 left, leading by 28 points, 73-45. UCF left its seniors in the game, and they closed the gap to 22 as the clock expired with Husky victory 106 in a row, 78-56. The Knights finished with 11 turnovers, a season low for a UConn opponent.

Lewis scored 22 for UCF, but it took 26 shot attempts. Collier had a much more efficient (7-10) 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, her 13th double-double of the season.

This game – despite the 22 point defeat – a was another in a series of advances for a Knight program revitalized by Abrahamson-Henderson in just one year. Program firsts this season include a 20-game season,  defeating a ranked team,  an AAC tournament win and an appearance in the tournament semifinals.

Although the team graduates its leading scorer in Lewis, nine returning players are sophomores and freshmen. The team’s ability to play fast while milking the shot-clock is a rare combination that is very hard to defend, and UCF can expect more success next year. It is possible that their play in this tournament will even yield another first: a post-season bid to the NIT.

Abrahamson-Henderson has changed the culture at UCF.

“I think we’ve trained our players to hate to lose,” she said. “It’s how I want their mindsets to be on every possession. Play hard and be physical. And now that this is how we think, I only have to train the [incoming] freshmen. These guys already know that.”

The transformation of the Knights to a winning program is yet another sign that the AAC is a league on the rise. Maybe, someday, one of them will be able to seriously challenge UConn, which won its 81st AAC game without a loss.

AAC semifinals, game two:

No. 3 South Florida 63, No. 2 Temple 58

Speed versus size was the theme of the second semifinal game – a contest that devolved into a question of who would miss more field goals. Temple’s quicker guards started strong, as USF took time to adjust to their quickness. Drive and dish worked well enough to give Temple as much as an eight-point first quarter lead, before the Bulls discovered that Tamara Henshaw, their 6-1 wide-body center, could establish deep post position without opposition by the slender Temple forwards. She scored four in the first quarter and eleven in the first half, seven more than her season average. Henshaw’s success was in part a choice made by Temple Coach Tonya Cardoza.

“Henshaw, she scored a lot in the first half, but that was taking away possessions from their guards. I thought we did a really good job of guarding 12 [Maria Jespersen] and guarding 33 [Kitija Laksa], and they had to choose another option, and she was it,” Cadoza said. “Henshaw’s a really good freshman, and we tried to take it at her and get her out of the game, and that part worked.”

Henshaw played just 23 minutes due to foul trouble, but her 15 points, all in the first half, were the most efficient of any player in the game, and kept the score close going into the locker room. Given the relative inefficiency of Jespersen (4-15) and Laksa (6-15), it is not clear that the tradeoff was a good one for the Owls.

Temple’s Tanaya Atkinson was everywhere, tallying 11 points and eight boards (four offensive) in the half. Atkinson, who sometimes plays tentatively, showed confidence and tenacity for the entire game. When the Owl guards got her the ball, USF had no one who could guard her combination of strength and athleticism. In the second quarter, however, Temple’s abandoned any semblance of an offensive set, as Feyonda Fitzgerald and Alliya Butts decided to dominate the offense to the exclusion of the rest of the team. Unfortunately, their numerous forced shots were ineffective. Butts was 2-7 and Fitzgerald just 3-11 for the half.

The first two quarters were mirror images for the teams. Temple’s 7-11 in the first was matched by USF’s 7-11 in the second. The Bull’s 6-17 in the first nearly matched the Owl’s 6-19 in the second. The net result was a close game at the half, USF 33- Temple 30.

USF’s Laksa found her stroke in the third quarter, scoring on aggressive drives and outside jumpers, tallying four points in the first five minutes. She was 4-9 in the second half, and hit four key free throws in the final minute.

Temple again failed to run any organized offense, with Fitzgerald and Butts still firing up jumpers from the perimeter without any semblance of offensive sets. The game remained close, however, because the Bulls also went cold, failing to score for the final 5:33 of the third period. The Owl’s only two field goals of the period closed the score to 42-39 going into the fourth. Each team had just 9 points in ten minutes of play.

In the final quarter, the Temple offense regressed even further into this: pass the ball, maybe twice, then get it to the perimeter, where Butts or Fitzgerald will attempt a jumper. The problem with this unimaginative plan was that Butts was 2-8 from downtown at this point in the game, and Fitzgerald 0-2.

Cardoza acknowledged the ineffectiveness of this offense.

“We were trying to get some dribble penetration, but the help was there, so I think we settled,” she said. “We talked about putting the ball on the floor, because they can’t contain us off the bounce, but we started second-guessing ourselves thinking that it wasn’t going to be open. But every time we got in there, we got something good whether it was a foul or a layup. For whatever reason we were second-guessing that option. . . . For whatever reason, we settled for the jump shot.”

But isn’t that what timeouts are for? If the game plan was abandoned despite it’s success, why was Temple unable to return to that successful plan for an entire half?

Temple closed to within a point as the period opened, but then went cold USF went on a 12-2 run over the next six minutes to take their largest lead of the game, 54-43 with three minutes left.  The Owls did not score a field goal for the first six minutes of the period.

Temple began to foul at about two minutes, and cut the score to four a few times. When the Bull’s Laia Flores fouled Butts on an attempted three with eight seconds remaining, things got interesting again. Butts missed one of the free throws, however, and time ran out after an unimportant Laska free throw made the final 63-58. The Owls shot 39 percent for the game, while USF shot 38 percent.

Butts was 5-15, 3-10 from beyond the arc. Safiya Martin was 3-4 in the paint, and grabbed eight rebounds. Temple failed to get her the ball for most of the second half, during which she had a single shot attempt.

USF’s Maria Jespersen missed 8 of 12 field goals, but grabbed thirteen rebounds. Henshaw was 7-12 for 15 points. Four starters played all 40 minutes.

This poorly-played game was watchable only because it stayed close, and the outcome remained in doubt even in the last thirty seconds.

For UConn, who will now play the Bulls for the Championship the third year in a row, nothing in this game is cause for concern. Even though the Huskies had a sub-par first half of their own semifinal game, they, unlike the Owls, made adjustments and crushed UCF in the second half.

The Championship game is 7 p.m. Monday on ESPN2.

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