Never poke the bear. Williams, USF learn the hard way in 77-51 loss to UConn in AAC title game.
UNCASVILLE -- They may have averaged nearly 90 points per game during the regular season, but make no mistake about it, when the University of Connecticut Huskies need to separate themselves from the competition, they do it with authority from the defensive side of the ball.
The top-ranked Huskies won their third straight American Athletic Conference tournament title with a 77-51 win over the University of South Florida Bulls behind 22 points from Breanna Stewart and a defense that forced five shot clock violations, blocked seven shots (all by Stewart) and generally made life miserable for the 21st ranked Bulls.
Stewart was named Most Outstanding Player in the AAC Tournament for the second time in her career.
The Bulls, a team that played the Huskies about as tough as anybody did this season, or over the last two seasons for that matter, simply could not survive the onslaught of arms, height and athleticism that UConn brings to the party.
Did it help that the Bulls may have poked the bear a little when their star, Courtney Williams, had hinted the night before that the Huskies were beatable? Probably not.
“We saw her (Williams) comments that she made (Sunday) night,” Stewart said. “Any confident player is going to make those comments, but on our end we don’t want to hear that. It just adds more fuel to the fire. It was the conference championship. We were ready to go.”
Translation: Don’t poke the bear.
This team lives for these types of moments.
The Bulls had played a relatively good first quarter, building a 14-9 lead at one point. But the Huskies closed on a four-point run to trail just 14-13 after one.
Alisia Jenkins (12 points) drained a 3-pointer to begin the second quarter to give the visitors a four-point lead again. But the defense was about to get real for the Huskies as they caused the first of five shot clock violations.
These were not your run of the mill violations either. These were ‘you have no prayer of getting a shot off and you’re not even aware of how much time is left’ kind of violations.
The Big 3 would get involved at that point as buckets from Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck and Stewart gave UConn its first lead at 19-17.
Kia Nurse had kept the ball alive with an athletic play under the basket to allow Tuck to find Stewart for the layup that gave the Huskies the lead for good.
Head coach Geno Auriemma understands it’s all about the defensive effort, always has been, always will be.
“The thing we talk about all the time is that we just want to give ourselves a chance to win,” Auriemma said. “If we play defense the way we played it then we’re always going to have a chance to win. Then, how much we win by depends upon how many shots go in. So if a lot of shots don’t go in, we’re going to win by a little because our defense is going to give us a chance to win. If we make a lot of shots like we did in the second half then we’re going to win by a lot. So, it starts on the defensive end and then it carries over onto the offense end. We just need like a five-minute run and that kind of gets us some separation. Our defense puts pressure because we score so often that it puts pressure on them to make shots. That’s kind of how the game went in the second half.”
UConn closed the quarter on a 12-4 run, fueled by eight points by Katie Lou Samuelson (a pair of 3’s and a jumper) to go into the half up 36-24.
The Huskies defense had forced the Bulls into three shot clock violations after the first 20 minutes and there would be more to come in the second half.
As for Williams, she was held to just two points in the first half behind suffocating defense first by Jefferson and then by Gabby Williams who drew the assignment in the second half.
Jefferson had the job early in the game but Williams can elevate over the senior guard so the Huskies brought in their secret weapon off the bench.
“We just put Gabby on her completely,” Auriemma said. “Now she has a completely different problem. She has someone on her who is athletic as she is but way bigger and way stronger. Gabby is the kind of kid who guard everybody on the floor. She’s exactly what we need. I remember talking to her and telling her you need to come off the bench because we are going to need that to win a National Championship.”
The bottom fell out for the Bulls in the third off the strength of a 9-0 run by UConn that ballooned the lead to 47-28 and left no doubt that the AAC Tournament trophy would stay in Storrs for yet another year.
Auriemma had said after the last regular season game against these same Bulls that his team understands how to take things to the next level and over these three tournament games that certainly was the case.
The Huskies outscored their opponents by a 251-137 margin and now await Selection Monday March 14 when they find out when they will begin in earnest their quest for their fourth straight national title and their eleventh overall.
Let the last portion of the journey begin.