KML steps up again in the NCAA Tournament. Story by Rich Elliott.
By Rich Elliott
STORRS – The greatness of a player can often be measured by how they perform in the biggest games of the season.
The UConn women’s basketball team has had its share of great players that have shined in the NCAA tournament. Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Bria Hartley, Rebecca Lobo, Maya Moore, Jennifer Rizzotti and Diana Taurasi are just a few that have helped the Huskies win an NCAA-record nine national championships.
Senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis must be added to that list. She has been both reliable and prolific over the course of her career in the tournament. Nothing changed Monday in the second round against eighth-seeded Rutgers.
Mosqueda-Lewis finished with 23 points and four assists in 32 minutes to lead top-ranked UConn to a 91-55 victory before 3,486 at Gampel Pavilion. The point total represented her career-high in 19 NCAA tournament games.
"She has a particular skill that doesn’t go away,’’ said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who turned 61 Monday. "Some kids they’re not quite sure what their thing is and she knows that when she gets an open look there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to go in. And she knows that she’s a scorer. She knows she’s going to make shots. And those are the kind of things I think give players a sense of confidence. They feel pretty good about themselves. So they don’t go into a game wondering, `How am going to play today?’ They know exactly what they’re going to do. And, to me, that’s a big part of her success.
"Another big part is she was never the best player on the team. So everybody just assumed that they had to stop other people and then she would sneak up on them. That’s why I’m really happy for her this year because this year wasn’t like that. They know who she is. They know where she’s going to be most of the time and they work really, really hard to keep it from her. And she’s worked even harder, which I’ve got to tell you wasn’t the case sometimes in the past. But she has worked really, really hard this year and she just has grown up a lot. She’s matured a lot.’’
UConn (34-1) will meet fifth-seeded Texas (24-10) in the Albany Regional semifinals Saturday at Times Union Arena (noon, TV TBA). The Huskies have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 22nd straight season dating back to a 74-71 loss to Louisville in the first round March 18, 1993.
Remarkably, Stanford holds the second longest active streak with eight straight appearances.
Mosqueda-Lewis is averaging 16.7 points in the NCAA tournament, scoring in double figures in 18 games and scoring at least 20 five times. She was named to the Final Four all-tournament and all-regional teams in each of the last two seasons as the Huskies won the national championship and was honored as the Lincoln Regional Most Outstanding Player last season.
"That’s awesome to be able to be someone that my teammates can always count on in the postseason, and someone who Coach can feel like he has confidence in and trusts,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. "I kind of take a lot of pride in that and being someone who can consistently be there for my teammates in the postseason.’’
Overall, Mosqueda-Lewis is ranked 14th all-time in scoring in tournament history (318). Moore (476) and Taurasi (428) are the only UConn players that have scored more points. She is also ranked fifth in tournament history with 40 3-pointers. Again, Taurasi (61) and Moore (59) are the only Huskies with more.
"K is a great shooter,’’ UConn junior Moriah Jefferson said. "She’s like a machine. Any time you have a shooter like that you’ve just got to give them the ball and let them go to work.’’
Mosqueda-Lewis had a season-low two points (1-of-6 FG, 0-of-3 3-pointers) in 16 minutes against St. Francis Brooklyn Saturday. She sat out the final 15:55 after experiencing pain in her Achilles tendon caused by tape on her ankle and the fact that she was wearing a different pair of sneakers.
It was the only time that Mosqueda-Lewis failed to reach double figures in scoring in the tournament. She went back to her old sneakers against Rutgers, did not get taped before the game and scored 16 points (6-of-12 FG, 4-of-8 3-pointers) in 19 minutes in the first half.
“I honestly believe the shoes make that much of a difference,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. "I really don’t know why I wanted to wear those shoes. I wore them three times in practice and I hated them. But I was like, ‘No, I want to wear these shoes.’ It wasn’t so much the shoes. It was more so my tape job. I decided to get taped for the first time in forever last game, and it just wasn’t working out for me.”
UConn outscored the Scarlet Knights 30-15 over final 10:52 of the first half to open a 51-31 lead at halftime. Mosqueda-Lewis had 13 points, including three 3-pointers, two rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block during this stretch.
"It’s fun to see her get in a rhythm,’’ UConn junior Breanna Stewart said. "When she gets going she doesn’t seem to miss. It seems like she’s shooting into the ocean basically. That’s how big the basket is. We needed that kind of run in the first half to really set the tone and pull away from Rutgers.’’
Mosqueda-Lewis, who said she has patterned her shooting form after former UConn and NBA great Ray Allen, left to a standing ovation with 6:46 remaining. It was a fitting sendoff in her final game at Gampel Pavilion.
Mosqueda-Lewis is ranked 8th all-time in NCAA history with 386 made 3-pointers. Laurie Koehn (Kansas State, 2002-05) and Heather Butler (Tennessee-Martin, 2011-14) share the NCAA record of 392.
"Mosqueda-Lewis is the best 3-point shooter in the country,’’ Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said.
Mosqueda-Lewis has as many as four games remaining in her All-American career. Along with the Huskies, she is eyeing a third straight national championship, which would only further solidify her legacy of postseason greatness.
“I think it’s just the fact that she knows March is the time to step it up to another level,” Stewart said. "She doesn’t want her senior year to end just like the rest of us don’t want it to end for her.’’