Both Connecticut and Cincinnati won their American Athletic Conference semifinal games Sunday and advance to the title game Monday.
No. 1 Connecticut 79, No. 4 USF 38
The Huskies’ defense is – to the surprise of coach Geno Auriemma – really, really good. Defensive pressure forced nine South Florida turnovers and two shot-clock violations in the first seven minutes of Sunday’s AAC semi-final. That intensity allowed a poor shooting (7-19) UConn squad to establish a 18-5 lead in the first quarter.
They held that level of pressure for the entire contest, and the Bulls never came close to threatening the Huskies’ dominance.
Auriemma praised his team’s ability to get beyond a poor shooting day.
“At this time of year, you have to play a certain way defensively,” he said. “And you have to play with a certain amount of energy and urgency. It’s March. You’ve got to have a different mind-set in March than when you play in January. And then if you make enough shots, you have a chance to win. And we did that.”
Pressured on every possession, USF shot just 1-13 in the first period.
UConn, which has torrid from beyond the arc recently (.477 in the five games leading to this one), did not find the range this day. They seemed to have fallen in love with the shot, hoisting them up early in many possessions, and missing nine of the first eleven tries.
In the second quarter, they were more patient offensively. They began working the ball inside, and opened up a 27-9 lead midway through. While the Bulls began hitting some contested shots, their opponents countered with Aubrey Griffin.
Griffin, who scored nine in the first seven minutes in the quarterfinal, scored eight consecutive points in her first seven minutes in this game, going 3-3 on driving layups and 2-2 from the free throw line.
The Huskies led by 21 at the half, while USF shot 19.2 percent for the first 20 minutes.
The second half was a formality. Even as Auriemma began to sit his starters, the defense continued to shine. The Bulls managed just five points in the third period, as they had in the first. UConn continued to struggle shooting, hovering around 40 percent, but USF was shooting just 16 percent, as the quarter ended at 56-22. Megan Walker led all scorers with 21 points as she went to the bench.
Against the second team, the Bulls improved their scoring a bit, but the outcome was never in doubt. The Huskies will play in the AAC final for the seventh straight time. With the 79-38 semifinal victory, they are now 138-0 all time in the conference.
For UConn, beyond the obvious importance of winning, was the importance of the re-emergence of Christyn Williams.
Williams can be a dynamic, driving guard, but has been reluctant to do so most of this season. Sunday she regularly took the ball into traffic, and good things happened. She got to the line twice, and scored three hoops inside.
Williams both acknowledged that part of the game had been missing, and recognized that she had come back to it.
“I’m slowly getting back to my normal self,” she said. “So, yeah, it felt good to drive and make that layup.”
“I’m just trying to do that more consistently throughout the tournament. I feel like I’ve changed my mentality. Post-season is just a new season overall. So I’ve just changed my approach. And if my shot is not on, I’m trying to impact the game in other ways. Stay engaged.”
Williams had 15 points, but also grabbed four rebounds – two of them offensive.
Auriemma also praised her defense.
“We need her defensively. She did a great job defensively today – really good job defensively today,” he said. “That’s part of the growing process for her.”
The Bulls will miss the NCAA tournament this year for the first time in many.
No. 3 Cincinnati 57, No. 2 Central Florida 51
These two teams entered their match up with identical conference records (11-5), and had split their season series. In a game of two halves, Cincinnati – which looked moribund after the first 20 minutes – stormed back with stifling defense in the second half to seize a 57-51 win over Central Florida.
The Bearcats shot just 30 percent in the first half, and most of their shots were both contested, and taken as the shot clock was running down.
The Knights held a distinct height advantage, and exploited it early and often. Masseny Kaba and Brittney Smith, both 6-3, were guarded by 6-0 Angel Rizor and 5-10 IImar’I Thomas, and made them pay in the first half. The Cincinnati forwards scored 17 points between them, seven from the free throw line, in the half. They also grabbed seven rebounds.
Central Florida shot 45 percent in the first 20 minutes, and led at the half, 36-25.
After the break, the Bearcats came out of the locker room a totally different team: energized stifling on defense. They outscored their opponents 17-3 in the third period and forced 15 turnovers in the half.
Coach Michelle Clark-Heard told her team at halftime that defense was their strength, and to let it win the game for them
“I told them that that’s what we’re going to do – play defense,” she said. “And to trust that our shots were going to fall.”
“Our ball movement got better, but defense was the key. We changed up defenses. It’s awesome to have a group who can follow the lead of the staff and just doing what we’re trying to do. We put in a lot of change-ups and other things, and we were really good and I think it kind of threw them a little bit and it really helped us.”
Cincinnati also awoke offensively, hitting 7-13 shots in the third. They assisted on five of those seven baskets, and they found Rizor open at the high post against the zone, where she converted for seven points in the period.
Defensively, the Bearcats denied the pass into the post, frustrating a Knights team that had been in control throughout the first half. Cincinnati’s post players changed their approach on defense, and held Smith and Kaba to just two points and five boards in the second half.
Rizor said the defensive change was mostly about better effort.
We knew that was one of their strengths,” she said, “and their posts were killing us, and getting all the rebounds. So we knew that we just had to come out and really box out and like really stop & contain them.”
The Bearcats took the lead for the first time at the 2:31 mark on an Thomas bucket inside, then extended the lead to 43-39 as the quarter ended.
The fourth quarter was a frenetic but unstructured affair. Cincinnati opened up a ten-point lead early in the quarter, but their opponents cut that to five, and then to one after the press forced a steal, and Sianni Martin completed a three-point play on the other end with under two minutes to go.
The Bearcats refused to fade, however, and stuck with their defensive pressure, holding the Knights scoreless for the last minute and a half, while extending the lead to six. A Thomas bucket, a defensive stop and one of two free throws by Antoinette Miller gave them a two-possession lead with 46 seconds to play. Rizor blocked Kay Kay Wright’s shot on the next possession, and Central Florida was forced to foul.
Miller made both shots, and Cincinnati lead 57-51 with 20 seconds left. A forced held ball stopped the Knights final possession, and the Bearcats completed a gritty comeback to seize a place in the tournament final.
Clark-Heard was thrilled.
“This is for our program,” she said. “We just had our 700th win. We haven’t been in a tournament final in 17 years.”