Tuck, Jefferson, Stewart lead Huskies past St. John's.
NEW YORK – Moriah Jefferson early, Morgan Tuck late and Breanna Stewart all the time. You try handling that. Most teams can’t. St. John’s tried Sunday and despite a gritty effort was like most teams. Not enough answers.
Jefferson continued her All-American play in the first half with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Tuck took over the brunt of the offensive in the second half with a powerful 17-point effort and Stewie was, well, Stewie with 18 points, 11 boards and six blocks as the Huskies pulled away from a pesty Red Storm squad for a 70-54 victory in front of 7,419 in Madison Square Garden at the Maggie Dixon Classic.
“We did our best to try and make them score in different ways maybe that they hadn’t but that’s very hard at times,” said St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella. “They are as strong as anybody in the country. There are reasons why they have All-Americans that’s why they are really good. You have to kind of pick your poison and hope somebody struggles that day or you end up playing you’re a plus game. But they have great players and are coached by the best of the game.”
Not that any of it was easy for the Huskies mind you. St. John’s only loss was a 73-67 loss in double overtime to Indiana State and while the idea of what that means is always challenged when UConn is the opponent, know this, the Red Storm can play.
It took a long time for the Huskies to get comfortable if they ever did and for the first half the Red Storm was the tooth ache not going anywhere. UConn was beat on the boards, 22-18 and with Danaejah Grant firing in 13 points, the Huskies tread water for a long time.
With St. John’s reducing Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to a limited factor at best, the Huskies turned to Jefferson who continued her brilliant play of late. Hitting her first six shots and scoring 14 of her 16 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, UConn managed to forge a 33-24 lead at one point. Meanwhile, Stewart scored 12 of her points to help keep the lead at 38-31 at the break.
Following a familiar slow start, big finish pattern of late, once again the Huskies found the hammer and put it down in the second half. And Stewart was right in the middle of it.
Stewart hit a jumper to start the half, blocked a shot, came up with a steal and Tuck scored. After another Stewart block and another Tuck layup, Tuck asserted herself underneath to score for a third straight time capping off an eight-point run for a 46-31 lead.
The second half surge is not the game plan the Huskies have been mapping out.
“Obviously that’s not planned. We want to come in and hit people right from the start and really enforce our presence,” said Stewart. "It’s a little slow. The fact that is happening in the second half is not what we’re planning. What we want to do it come into a game hit a team, keep hitting them and then once second half comes around really just step on it than finish them off.”
Coach Geno Auriemma admits for all the gaudy numbers, 12-1 record and No. 2 national ranking, this is still a team growing up.
“This is not a very mature team. I wouldn’t classify this as one of our most mature teams,’ said Auriemma. “So it takes this group a little bit longer to get things. Some teams that we’ve had got it right away. This group, some days we get it, some days it takes a while.“
Tuck is getting it and only the knee injury that sidelined her most of last year is preventing her from really exploding. She finished with 23 points while grabbing six rebounds. Several times she left defenders guarding air in the second half. It wasn’t Notre Dame (25 pts. 9, reb.) , but it was a Notre Dame-type performance. She even had Tartamella smiling and he was victimized.
“Yeah man she’s a good player, not a bad player,” Tartamella said admiringly. “The backbreaker when you watch her is that she made adjustments today and I enjoyed watching her. I thought we did a better job in the first half of trying to curtail her and she made some adjustments to make some counters on plays in the post and really demanded it. I thought her confidence has improved, her outside shot is better, that’s why they love her at UConn. She’s a big piece of what (UConn) does.”
Auriemma thinks Tuck is just going to keep getting better and Tuck agrees.
“I think he’s kind of right I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to the last couple of years and now I think I’m starting to get there,” said Tuck. “He sees me in practice every day so if he says there is a lot more there I definitely think there is. Tonight there were opportunities. Our focus was to just bring energy. The first half wasn’t UConn basketball.’
St. John’s (12-2) shot just 32 percent in the second half and while refusing to become a 30-point, 40-point victim, never got the lead below 13 points again. Danaejah Grant after a 13-point first half finished with 13 points. Aliyyah Handford led all scorers with 20 points,