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Stewart, Nurse Lead Second Half Surge As UConn Defeats USF. By Rich Elliott.

POSTED February 29, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – The challenges have been few for the UConn women’s basketball team this season. The first 28 games had been decided by an average of 40.6 points, with every win coming by at least 10.

At this point in the season, with the start of the postseason just days away, the top-ranked Huskies collectively knew that the challenges would soon present themselves. They would have to battle for long stretches. They would have to make in-game adjustments. They would have to make critical plays at critical times.

All of this came into play Monday against No. 20 South Florida. UConn struggled offensively and trailed at halftime. Yet, led by star Breanna Stewart and Kia Nurse, they responded like true champions in the second half.

Stewart scored 20 of her 27 points in the second half and added 13 rebounds, three assists and four blocks to lead the Huskies to a 79-59 victory before 9,030 at Gampel Pavilion in the regular season finale. Nurse delivered 12 of her 15 points in the second half and added four rebounds.

``Obviously, I think we like a challenge,’’ Nurse said. ``That’s something that comes out in every single one of us. When a challenge is presented we like to fight back. Obviously, we do not want to be down at halftime. But it was just a matter of trying to see what we could bring out of ourselves in the second half.’’

The Huskies (29-0, 18-0 AAC) finished the regular season undefeated for the eighth time in team history. It marks the 12th time that they have completed their conference schedule without a loss.

UConn, which has won 66 straight games overall and 46 straight at home, will begin the postseason Saturday against the East Carolina/Cincinnati-winner in The American tournament quarterfinals at Mohegan Sun Arena (2 p.m.).

Coach Geno Auriemma said that the type of win the Huskies earned against South Florida is helpful heading into the postseason.

``The players knew that it was going to be like this,’’ Auriemma said. ``I don’t think anybody thought that we were going to come out here, run out to a 25-point lead at halftime and coast in. Nobody on our team expected to do that. So it is good. It forced us to do some things that I think are going to come in handy next weekend and in the (NCAA) tournament as well.’’

The Huskies shot 28.1 percent from the field (9-of-32) in the first half and trailed 25-24 at halftime. It was the first time that they trailed at the half since Dayton led 44-43 in the NCAA regional final March 30, 2015.

UConn missed 18 of its final 22 shots of the half.

``I think there was a few of us who felt like we weren’t contributing in any way possible,’’ Nurse said. ``And, for us, it was kind of a matter of `We’ve got to lock down. We’ve got to get ourselves together. Have a great second half and come out firing.’ Because we really were not happy with the first half we had.’’

The Huskies missed their first two shots of the third quarter before making their next five and 13 of 21 overall in outscoring the Bulls 32-14.

Stewart scored 16 points (8-of-11 FG) in the quarter.

“Shots weren’t falling, and a lot of that was my fault,’’ Stewart said. “I missed a lot of shots in the first half. But I think that the way we came out in the second half, they weren’t ready for that.’’

Defensively, UConn employed a match-up zone to open the second half. The change left South Florida out of sync offensively.

The Bulls were 6-of-14 from the field in the third quarter, committing three turnovers.

UConn, which is 19-0 all-time against South Florida, had runs of 13-3 and 15-2 in the quarter.

``They really flustered us like we didn’t see zone all year,’’ South Florida guard Courtney Williams said. ``We didn’t hit the corners. We didn’t try to get to the middle. We didn’t get two people to guard us. I really feel like that’s what it was. The zone really made us lose our mind.’’

Williams, who had 12 points in the first quarter, missed each of her four shots and was scoreless in the third quarter.

She would finish the game with 21 points. However, she had just nine (4-of-15 FG) over the final 30:37.

``We’re the worst zone team in America,’’ Auriemma said. ``That’s why we don’t play it very often. So when we went to it I knew that it’s so bad, and sometimes we run around in it, that I’m confused. And it confused them too. And that’s kind of what happened. They just run a lot of great stuff to get Courtney open. We did a pretty good job on her in the second half. One person can’t guard her. She just gets the ball and goes where she wants to go and then scores. And a lot of times she was guarded. So we figured let’s give them a different look, change the way they see it. Let them change what they have to do to attack it and let’s get them out of their comfort zone because they were pretty comfortable that first half.’’

UConn shot 62.9 percent from the field in the second half, committing just one turnover and outscoring South Florida 55-24.

Stewart made 10 of her final 12 shots of the game after missing 10 of her first 13. She scored in a variety of ways, including a reverse layup off of an offensive rebound to finish the scoring in the third quarter.

``It just feels good that she’s doing well,’’ UConn forward Morgan Tuck said. ``And I think it’s her being her. Honestly, she could do that every night. But I think she knows like, `OK, I don’t have to go get almost 30 every night. I have to make sure my teammates are getting the ball.’ I think she just continues to show why she’s the best player in the country.’’

Stewart, who has 13 double-doubles this season and 38 in her career, became the first player in team history since Kara Wolters (1996-97) to reach double figures in scoring in every game during the regular season.

Tuck added 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists for the Huskies. Moriah Jefferson also had 11 points, while Katie Lou Samuelson added nine points and three assists.

South Florida (21-8, 14-4) is the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, meaning the teams could meet again in the final March 7.

“It was a lot of fun (Monday),” Stewart said. “This is what you want in a game. You want it to be a close game. You want everything you do to be on the line. The way we came out in the third quarter, I wanted to make sure that I was just leading this team. We got better shots in the second half. But a lot of that had to do with how we played compared to the first half.’’

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