Williams, Stevens propel UConn to AAC crown
UNCASVILLE – Five straight American Athletic Conference titles, 101 American Athletic Conference wins in a row. Undefeated.
But it’s really not about that at this time of year, is it? Championships are nice and all that but the AAC is not up to UConn’s level as a whole and never has been although South Florida is plenty good and showed well in in a 70-54 loss to the Huskies at Mohegan Sun Tuesday night.
It’s about tournament readiness and what if anything ails you at this time of the year. Are we where we want to be which in UConn’s case is in position for a 12th national title.
Gabby Williams was ailing with a sore hip, having sat out the semifinal devastation of Cincinnati. Coach Geno Auriemma had said it would be her decision to play. She played and we all should be ailing like that.
Williams fired in a team-high 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, came up with five steals and threw a couple of passes that obliterated the idea of routine. Yep, she decided to play. Williams dismissed a question from a reporter about her injury and a little bang she took during the game.
It didn’t matter, her game spoke loudly.
“As soon as I woke up this morning,” said Williams about her decision to play. “I knew once I made the decision to play I was going to have to go out there and attack it like any other game. I didn’t want to show like oh I am halfway there so I was going to play I was all in.”
Auriemma just keeps smiling when Williams’s name comes up.
“When you have someone like Gabby and she plays the way played tonight its – No. 1 it’s fun to watch and No. 2 they don’t have anybody on their team that can compensate for what she was doing,” said Auriemma. “She got some help but I think without here, especially coming off last night there was no way we could win.”
If Williams was the catalyst, Azura Stevens was the continuing spark. She earned tournament MVP honors for her second straight standout performance with 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. This coming off of a 21-point, 13 rebound gem against Cincinnati.
“I just have to thank my teammates and coaching staff for trusting my role that I have on this team,” said Stevens of her surging game. “My teammates are doing a good job of finding me good spots and making my job easier.
It was a night that the Huskies needed big performances. There was no imminent danger of defeat but the Bulls made the Huskies grind it out. They didn’t go away, there was no big run to put them away. There was no flat-lining the team in the second quarter.
Pesky like a hang nail they stood up to the Huskies despite getting dumped twice during the regular season by 51 and 29 points.
UConn led by just a point, 18-17 before Kia Nurse drained a three-pointer to end the first quarter. Only a lift from Stevens allowed some distance on the scoreboard. She came off the bench in the second quarter and scored six points to go with five rebounds as the Huskies built up a 37-23 lead.
South Florida went cold in the second quarter hitting just 4-of-16 shots as UConn took control and Katie Lou Samuelson duplicated Nurse with a trey to end the quarter.
Auriemma was not surprised that the Bulls came at the Huskies.
“I knew and I was ready for a game to be played kind of like it played out,” said Auriemma. “You knew there was not going to be a repeat of what happened the first two times. It’s not that time of year for that kind of stuff. They are too good and (Kitija) Laksa is just too good to keep under wraps for three straight games.”
UConn looked like it was going go on one of those mind-altering rolls in the third quarter and did just enough to put the game out of reach but South Florida would reel the Huskies in in the final 10 minutes.
Williams went on a roll with a 17-footer and a reverse layup along the baseline followed by a Crystal Dangerfield bomb for a 44-27 lead. After a Laksa (26 points) three-pointer, the Huskies ran off eight straight points for a 52-30 lead.
The Bulls battled in the fourth quarter with Laksa scoring 13 points with a trio of treys and turned a 22-point deficit to 13 points, 64-50 but time left little hope for the deficit to dwindle further.
“We got out to a good start tonight but UConn close out the first and second quarters,” said South Florida coach Jose Fernandez. “We continued to claw in the fourth quarter. There is a reason why and who they are. But we showed how good we are and we deserve to host (in the NCAA)
So on a night when the Huskies had to grind and struggle a bit they answered that third question. The title was nice but they seemed primed for better things. That’s what this was about.