UConn, disrupted and distressed by UCF’s physicality, still wins by 36

Gabby Williams elevates to grab a rebound. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Gabby Williams elevates to grab a rebound. Photo by Stephen Slade.

Storrs, Conn. – Connecticut has never lost a game in the American Athletic Conference, and they padded that statistic Tuesday with an 80-44 rout of the University of Central Florida. But it wasn’t as easy as the final score indicates.

The contest for the Huskies was supposed to be a romp like so many others against league competition. For a half, however, UCF demonstrated the kind of athletic, physical play that can cause UConn to look uncomfortable and ineffective.

The Huskies, playing just their second game on campus, may decide they prefer road games. Faced with an aggressive and athletic Knights team, UConn scored just 32 points in the first half, a season low. By contrast, they scored 33 points in the first quarter against a ranked South Florida team just three days earlier.

UCF is extraordinarily quick and physical defensively, and the officials on this day were content to allow the contact. The Knights successfully packed the paint, stifling the Husky interior game, while recovering speedily to contest all but a few threes. UConn, clearly rushing to try to beat the defensive pressure, missed six of their first seven shots. UCF, meanwhile, milked the clock to limit possessions, missed even more shots, but matched the Huskies on the boards, to finish the period down just 18-8.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma returned to his sarcastic self when analyzing his team’s poor first-half play.

“I think the first half offensively . . . we got a little chip on our shoulder towards the officials,” he said. “I think that some players on our team think it’s the officials’ job to help them be really good. ‘Cause as you noticed in the first half, we are incapable of making a bucket when somebody touches us, we are incapable of making a layup when somebody else is in the lane with us. . . . Once we got that crap cleared away at halftime, it was pretty good.”

The Knights kept up the pressure throughout the second period, and at times the usually-confident Huskies looked shell-shocked. As a team, UCF was more athletic, which clearly threw their opponents off their game. The visitors contested every cut, every drive, every three. Along with the season-low 32 first half points, they held UConn to a season-low 36.4 percent shooting – 18 below their average. The clearly-flustered Huskies also missed four of nine free throws, and six of nine three-point attempts.

Fortunately for UConn, the Knights are not a good shooting team. With their deliberate style, they average just 61.4 points per game. But their active defense and clock-burning strategy has held their opponents to an average of just 54.7.

Kia Nurse initiates the fast break. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Kia Nurse initiates the fast break. Photo by Stephen Slade.

The second half became interesting, as the Knights shooting improved, mostly on pull-up jumpers off penetration. The Huskies rushed a series of shots and for a time, their opponents kept pace with them. A 5-0 UConn run, including a fast break, stopped the UCF momentum, but then they answered with a rare (for them) three, and the host’s lead was just 14.

Halfway through the third quarter, however, Gabby Williams took over the game defensively. Her steal and fast-break layup ignited the Huskies, and both their confidence and their scoring recovered. They kept up the pressure, led by Williams, and created some separation, closing the third ahead by 24, 56-32.

“Gabby Williams single-handedly turned the game around in the second half,” Auriemma said. “And once that [defensive pressure] started to happen and we started to get out and run, they didn’t have the chance to set up. Great players change the game by making great plays, not by taking something from the playbook & running with it.”

By the end of the third period, UConn had doubled their halftime lead to 24, and the Knights began to fade. They appeared winded and a step slower in the fourth quarter, while the Huskies regained their confidence, and maybe a bit of swagger. Shots that had been contested earlier, suddenly were not, and they were 11-17 in the fourth and led 14-5 in rebounds, which had been more or less even through three periods.

By shooting over 63 percent in the second half, UConn just managed to bring their shooting to a more familiar 50 percent. Azura Stevens led five playes in double figures with 19 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes of play. Williams pulled down 13 rebounds, and was everywhere on defense.

Kay Kay Wright scored 17 for UCF.

The Huskies hit the road again for games at Houston and Texas next weekend, while the Knights travel to face South Florida on Sunday.