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AAC Tournament’s first two days provide upsets, close games and blow-outs

Uncasville, Conn. – The top four seeds in the AAC Tournament survived into the semifinals, a rarity in this year’s postseason tournaments. But the first two days of the tournament saw three upsets, and a nail-biter decided by the possession arrow and a last-second shot that rimmed out.

The tournament is played at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Day one: Saturday March 3

The opening day of the AAC tournament was full of upsets, as three of four lower seeds advanced – one of them (Tulane) convincingly.

No. 11 Temple 72, No. 6 Wichita State 59

The festivities began with an upset as Temple seized control of the game by denying the Shocker’s inside game and out-hustling Wichita State on their way to a 72-59 victory. Owls senior Tanaya Atkinson scored 24, but it was the outstanding game of freshman Emani Mayo that made the difference. Mayo, who was so shy at the start of the season that she made her twin sister follow her everywhere, hit eight of 16 shots for 20 points.

Temple packed the paint on defense, and the Shockers could not make enough jumpshots to compete.

“Last game they killed us in the paint,” Temple coach Tonya Cardoza explained, “and today we decided we’re not going to allow two kids to score like 60 points on us.”

Wichita State coach Keith Adams admitted her team was outmatched.

“They had a little quicker step today and a little bit more aggressive and hit some big shots. I just think they were the better team today,” Adams said.

No. 7 ECU 85, No. 10 SMU 74

How can a team be down five points at the half when they shot 54 percent? That was SMUs situation in the second game at halftime. The answer? They turned the ball over 18 times, and yielded 14 offensive rebounds to the ECU Pirates, allowing them to take twice as many shots. Though shooting just 31 percent, ECU led 40-35 at the half.

The Mustangs had turned the ball over 43 times in the last meeting of these teams, but had no effective adjustments to respond to the Pirate full court press. ECU found their offense after the break, repeatedly finding an open back door for layups. They improved their shooting to 50 percent in the last 20 minutes and finished the game with a remarkable 32 points from the bench.

SMU coach Heather Macy said the key to the win was tempo control.

“Our press continued to elevate the tempo, which was to our advantage, as they would have been more comfortable in a half court game,” she said.

The officiating in this one was less than stellar, and had a greater effect on the Mustangs, due to their shorter bench.

“Getting to the bonus with six minutes to go in the third quarter was a huge thing for us,” Macy said.

This crew was clearly not from the “let-them-play” school. Their approach was disruptive of play, and annoying to those watching the action. They called 51 fouls and two SMU starters fouled out. By contrast, here were just 31 foul calls in the first game, and no players were disqualified.

No. 9 Tulane 76,  No. 8 Memphis 64

Although this contest featured two teams with 5-11 conference records, it did not look like a typical 8 v. 9 game. From the tipoff, Tulane played with the intensity and precision of a team that could play with anyone in the league. Their defensive pressure forced 19 Memphis turnovers, which Tulane converted to 23 points. Tulane’s wonderful Kolby Morgan scored her 2,200th career point on her second made three of the game just before the end of the first period. At 1:11 in the second period, she moved into fifth position on the active player career scoring list.

But Morgan was just getting started. When she left the game with 3:15 left in the game and Tulane leading 76-52, her line read 27 points on 10-12 shooting, 4-4 on threes, eight rebounds and eight assists.

No. 12 Tulsa 98, No. 5 Houston 72

Tulsa took it to Houston from the opening tip and never slowed down. In fact, nobody slowed down in this contest between high-speed opponents. Tulsa led 46-36 at the half, shooting 53 percent and forcing 12 turnovers, from which they mined 12 points. Houston, after a terrible start that left them down by 17 midway through the second quarter, improved their shooting percentage to 50 at the close of the half.

It is rare to watch a college game where both teams shoot over 50 percent, but these teams managed just that through the third quarter. Tulsa just did it better, extending their lead to 15 by shooting 61 percent for the third period.

Tulsa maintained their torrid shooting through the final period, extending the lead to 26 to close out a remarkable shooting night (57 percent). Crystal Polk was a stalwart in the paint for Tulsa, scoring 28 points on 13-15 shooting. Tulsa was so locked in to team play that they recorded 28 assists on their 37 buckets.

Angela Harris scored 27 for Houston in the loss.

Day two – Sunday, March 04

No. 3 UCF 77, No. 11 Temple 70

Temple rushed out to a 15-point first quarter lead by breaking the UCF press and hitting transition three-pointers. As the quarter closed down, however, so did the Knights. As they threw off what their coach called the “rust” of not playing for six days, their press began to work, and they led 32-31 at the half.

The press became much more aggressive in the second half, trapping the ball-handler with superior size defenders, and the young Owls eventually committed 23 turnovers, yielding 25 UCF points.

The Knight’s victory was just what they planned, minus the rust.

“That is how we play,” coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Try to press the whole game. It a theme for UCF to play fast. We knew they had played a hard 40 minutes the day before and that it would be hard to guard Atkinson in the half court so we needed to press them to wear them out.”

Temple’s Tanaya Atkinson, who entered the tournament tied for the AAC scoring lead, was held to two points in the first half, as the Knights chose to pack the paint to limit her effectiveness. Temple stayed in the game by kicking the ball to grad student Mykia Jones, who hit four open threes in the half, not usually a Temple strong point.

A rust-free UCF team, meanwhile, became queens of the 12-footer, repeatedly penetrating for pull-up jumpers, and shooting 52 percent for the game. By the intermission, they led 32-31. The Owls fell behind by as many as 15 points, as the Knights shot 60 percent in the third quarter. UCF took a lead they never surrendered on a 9-2 run that included scores off four consecutive steals as the third period closed.

Atkinson got on track midway through the third, eventually scoring 20 points, but the Temple defense just could not get enough stops. The Knights made over half their shot attempts, and the Owls were rushed out of organizing any effective offense, shooting just .333 in the fourth period.

Despite the loss, Temple coach Tonya Cardoza was upbeat for now, and for the future.

“You can tell by the way my team played today that we started to get it down the stretch. I am really proud of the fight that we had coming in to the tournament, only winning three games in conference, but you would never be able to tell that by the way we played this weekend. . . . You would have never known what our record was from our effort.”

Four Knight players scored in double figures, led by Zykia Saunders’ 22. Atkinson finished with 20 points for Temple.

No. 2 USF 80, No. 7 ECU 44

South Florida out-ran, out-rebounded, and out-hustled ECU for a dynamic win that in a contest that was never in doubt. USF’s match-up zone flummoxed the Pirates from the start, and the team made no effective adjustments throughout the game. Instead of passing, cutting and finding the high post and baseline openings, ECU’s guards drove into the defense and fired up off-balance 14-footers. The Bulls shot just 31 percent for the game.

USF has some of the biggest guards in the conference, and overall the victors were taller at every position. They also run a disciplined offense worthy of a team coached by the conference Coach of the Year, Jose Fernandez. Their ball movement yielded open shots all afternoon, and the team capitalized by shooting 53 percent for the game, 60 percent in the second half. They outrebounded the Pirates, 49-27, and scored 13 second chance points. Their hustle also led to 14 fast break points on the day.

ECU simply looked outmatched in every phase of the game, and their performance was not one with which to end the season. Lashonda Monk scored 11 points on 5-11 shooting, the only Pirate player in double figures.

Maria Jespersen had 23 for USF, and Katija Laska 21. Fernandez was able to rest most of his starters for the last six minutes of the game. The coach saved his greatest praise for senior point guard Laia Flores, who had nine assists along with eight points and six rebounds.

“You know Laia sets the table for us. She doesn’t get the recognition in this country on the job that she does,” he said. “A lot of people look at how many points, how many rebounds. She just finds people. And when our wings run, and when our posts run, she just does a great job of getting the ball to where the ball needs to get to. And I thought in transition, that third quarter was fun to watch.”

What to look for in Monday’s first semifinal:

UCF presses and traps full time. They shot remarkably well against Temple, especially from beyond the arc. They played one of their most complete games of the year in the quarterfinal victory. If they also can maintain the offensive focus (and success) against USF, their disruptive defense could make the game competitive and close. USF, however, is far more disciplined on both ends of the court than Temple, and nothing will be as easy for UCF as it was on Sunday. Coach Fernandez summarized USF’s game plan, and the need to protect the ball.

“We’re going to have to do a great job of taking care of the ball against their full court pressure. . . . They do a great job disguising stuff, and where they bring traps in the full court,” he said. “And in the half court we’re going to have to do a good job shooting the ball against their zone. We need to get the ball to the places we want to get the ball to. And then not settling and being a one-shot and out against their zone.”

USF defeated UCF in 77-68 in overtime on Feb. 18, and turned the ball over 20 times, giving up16 points. Laksa had 31 points, and Jespersen 15 rebounds. Zakija Saunders scored 31 for the Knights, but shot just 14-34. The Bulls dominated the earlier meeting of the teams in January, 62-45.

No. 1 UConn 82, No. 9 Tulane 56

No surprises here. Tulane hit three early threes to take a brief lead over UConn; they adjusted their defense and held the Green Wave scoreless for the next five minutes, going on an 18-0 run during that time, effectively ending the game. Behind 8-14 shooting from three-point range, the Huskies took a 52-22 lead into halftime. Crystal Dangerfield was a perfect 5-5 for the half, including four threes, for 14 points. Katie Lou Samuelson also scored 14, including three from downtown. Colby Morgan scored seven in the half for Tulane, but was held to 3-9 accuracy by the UConn defense.

The second half changed very little. Morgan continued to score, but most of her Tulane teammates could not. Husky Gabby Williams aggravated a long-standing hip injury late in the second quarter and sat out the rest of the game. UConn pulled its remaining starters early in the fourth quarter.

Morgan’s career ended with a minute remaining, a 21-point performance. The Husky bench scored 15 points – all of them from Azura Stevens. The rest of the bench shot 0-7 in 45 minutes of play.

The high point for UConn may have been the return of Dangerfield as a scorer. The sophomore point guard had 14 points on 5-7 shooting including 4-4 on threes. Five Husky players scored in double figures. The low point was the Williams injury.

With the win, the Huskies (30-0) clinched their 13th straight 30-win season and their 23rd 30-win season in 25 years. UConn moves on to play Cincinnati in the second semi-final at 7pm on Monday on ESPN2.

Both Kia Nurse and Samuelson surpassed 1,600 career points during the contest.

No. 4 Cincinnati 66, No. 12 Tulsa 65

Only about 500 people stayed after the UConn game to see the most exciting and engaging game of the tournament. The teams played even all game, with no team leading by double-digits. Both squads shot over 50 percent in the first half, and both limited turnovers. Tulsa led 18-14 after ten minutes.

The balance continued in the second period, but the efficiency and flow of the game did not. Both teams seemed to be rushing to take the quickest shot available, and they missed a lot more of them. Each scored just nine points in the second period, and entered the locker room with Tulsa leading 27-23.

Cincinnati’s Shenice Johnson led all scorers at the half with nine points, but frequently their guards would jack up a shot before she had even reached the key. Johnson is a big, strong forward with considerable skills, but she often looked lazy. On more than one Cincinnati run-out, she never crossed half court on offense.

Both of these teams are guard-oriented, and the tallest starter was Tulsa’s Crystal Polk at 6-2. They play high-speed basketball, with Tulsa running half-court sets and Cincinnati generally just running. Both teams spread the scoring among seven or eight players.

A Johnson three-pointer gave Cincinnati its first lead in the third period, but Tulsa followed with a 8-0 run to create the first separation of this close contest, 43-36.

Cincinnati ground it out into the fourth period, tying the score at 52 and taking a three-point lead as senior Ana Owens hit a three and then two free throws on consecutive possessions. Undeterred, Tulsa answered. The teams exchanged the lead nine times in the final four minutes.

The final 30 seconds could not have been more exciting. With Tulsa leading by one, Cincinnati’s Sam Rogers missed a short jumper, and the tie-up on the rebound went to Tulsa. Only a miracle ending could save Cincinnati.

Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott described that miracle sequence.

“We were down one, and they had the ball right in front of their bench, and we knew we had three fouls to give,” she said. “We said to ourselves, ‘we have 14 seconds left in this game and we have to foul three times and not let no time click off the clock.’ Good luck!”

“But the last thing we told them was ‘Don’t foul, go for the steal first.’ And luckily somebody was able to get a hand on the loose ball, diving on the floor, . . . and thankfully the jump ball was ours and gave us the opportunity to win.”

A timeout advanced the ball to Cincinnati’s frontcourt, and Owens, who had shot 0-9 from the field until the final five minutes, drove the lane for a scooping shot that bounced around before falling in for the lead. It was one of only two field goals she made in the game.

With four seconds left, Tulsa also advanced the ball with their final timeout. Erika Wakefield drove to the hoop through the Cincinnati defense and flipped a contested shot onto the rim, but it rolled off as the buzzer sounded, and Cincinnati advanced to their first AAC semi-final with a 66-65 victory.

Elliott seemed more excited than her players after the game.

“We found a way to win,” she said. “We could easily have given up down seven inside of five minutes. We made enough plays to win the game. . . . I’ve never been to the semi-finals as a coach, so I’m really excited.”

What to look for in the second semifinal:

Another easy UConn victory. UConn defeated Cincinnati by 41 points, 100-65, on Feb. 4. Auriemma has never lost to a team coached by a former player. Elliott played for UConn from 1993-1996, and coached there for 12 years. Cincinnati has lost all 18 games played against UConn since 2006. Two of those losses have been in prior AAC tournaments.

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