Uncasville, Conn. – Connecticut won its sixth AAC Tournament Championship and 120th AAC contest Monday with a 66-45 win over first-time finalist UCF.
Napheesa Collier led the way for the Huskies with 25 points and 14 rebounds, while Christyn Williams added 13 points and Crystal Dangerfield had 12 – all from three-point shots. Star forward Katie Lou Samuelson had to sit out the tourney with a back injury.
Although the basketball world expected UConn to win, coach Geno Auriemma emphasized that every championship matters, even when a lot have come before.
“Obviously, winning championships is why you start the season,” he said. “That’s what everyone aspires to do.”
This year’s Husky squad is younger than in past years.
“A lot of our young guys have not been in this situation before. I’m really proud of the way they responded,” Auriemma said. “Pheesa and Crystal were great leaders this weekend. And the team really stepped up and covered for Lou, and I just think this was one of the more satisfying championships that I’ve been a part of.”
Nine Knights scored, but only Lawriell Wilson reached double figures, with 12 points. Sophomore Masseny Kaba contributed nine points and eight rebounds.
The team speed and unpredictability of UCF’s offense presented a very different defensive challenge for the defending champs. Their new-found defensive intensity was on display again, however, and they made scoring difficult for the Knights.
UCF’s quickness did gain them open shots early, but they missed most of them in the first 20 minutes, and dug a hole out of which they could not climb, despite shooting 50 percent in the second half.
On the other side of the ball, the Knight’s defensive intensity made things difficult for UConn throughout the game. The Huskies’ dominance of the boards in the first half, however, gained them enough extra shots to lead 17-9 after ten minutes.
UConn found offensive rhythm in the second quarter, first relying on Collier (six quick points) and then Williams (six more on drives into the paint). A pair of threes by Dangerfield opened up a lead the Huskies did not surrender.
UCF, on the other hand, found UConn players face-guarding them on every move, and were forced to throw up contested jumpers over and over. The Knights managed just two field goals and six points, in the second period.
The Huskies shot 60 percent in that second quarter to put the game away. By halftime, Collier had 16 points, Dangerfield nine, and Williams eight. Although seven UCF players scored, none had more than one field goal and the team shot just 19.2 percent for the half.
Knight senior Nyala Shuler acknowledged that it took too long for her team to settle into the game.
“In the first half were a little uncomfortable,” she said. “we weren’t really playing our style of basketball.”
“So we went into the locker room and regrouped. And then I think we came out with a lot more energy, we got a lot more comfortable, and then we and really started playing more our game and had some success.”
Down 24 at the half, UCF roared into the third period with added intensity. They forced several UConn turnovers and converted the jump shots they had missed during the first half. The Huskies had trouble penetrating the Knight zone, and their contested jumpers began to fall short. Despite the change in fortunes, however, UCF closed the gap by only five points in the period, which ended with a still commanding 48-29 UConn lead going into the final period.
Both teams maintained the intensity to the end. The Knights showed the first signs of running a structured offense, and were successful driving and dishing to the short corner on successive plays. The Huskies seemed unable to run any standard offense against the 3-2 zone, and short-armed a series of eight footers when they did get into the paint.
But they eventually got organized, posted up Collier for successive baskets, and forced two consecutive turnovers. Dangerfield’s fourth three was enough to close out the game with a comfortable 66-45 victory.
UCF outscored UConn 30-27 and out rebounded them 17-12 in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the first two quarters.
Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson admitted that she never expected to win the game. Her team had already lost twice, by a combined 73 points, to the Huskies this year.
“This game wasn’t ever about them,” she said. “It was about us, and just enjoying the situation, and enjoying being in the conference championship.”
“They’re one of the best teams in the country, and it’s going to be impossible to come into this environment and win. That’s what I said. That’s what I told my team at halftime. ‘You need to have some fun. Don’t get so stressed out about the situation.’ Then they finally loosened up and started playing better UCF basketball.”
Samuelson is the fifth-leading scorer in UConn history, and is the on-court leader of the team. Playing without her, and especially winning without her, should benefit the team as it moves on in the post-season. Collier, a player of the year candidate, saw the advantages of adjusting to play without her.
“As hard as it is to play without Lou, I thought we did a really great job,” she said. “I thought we had a lot of different people step up, especially our younger players”.
“And you know, whenever you have someone go down, whoever it is, you have to someone step up. The show has to go on. It gave Olivia [Nelson-Ododa] a chance to prove herself, and I think she did that this weekend. She did everything we needed her to. And Christyn did the same. As hard as it is, it gave them good minutes, and when Lou’s back, they’ll be even more ready.”
Nelson-Ododa, a 6-4 freshman, was at times dominant in the paint. At other times, she looked clueless, as is the case for many freshman. But “we’re a different team defensively when Liv is in the game,” Auriemma said.
Her length and rebounding skills were on display during much of the tournament. She had 21 rebounds and seven blocks in three games. She also tallied 20 points on 9-13 shooting, and averaged 30 minutes per game.
The championship secures the Huskies a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, clearly in the Albany Region. UCF, at 26-6 has also earned a place in the Tournament, possibly as high as a No. 9 seed.
The victory was the 31st on the season for UConn. Sunday’s semifinal victory marked Auriemma’s 14th consecutive 30-win season, and 23rd in the 25 years since 1994. Baylor and Notre Dame each also won their 30th game of the year on Sunday, and share second place with nine in a row.
Auriemma had no idea that the team had a winning streak of that kind. Winning seasons have become expected of only this program, and therefore are rarely mentioned during the season or in the locker room. The reminder of such sustained excellence caused him to pause.
“You know, when it becomes routine, you start to think only about the bad things the team does,” he said. “It’s important sometimes to accept what a remarkable thing it is to win so many games. I need to keep that in mind, and enjoy it. Thank you.”
The AAC All-Tournament team:
Napheesa Collier, UConn, Most Outstanding Player
Crystal Dangerfield, UConn
Megan Walker, UConn
Christyn Williams, UConn
Kay Kay Wright, UCF
Enna Pahadzic, USF