UConn takes home AAC Championship over USF. Story by Rich Elliott.
UConn senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was named the Most Valuable Player of the American Athletic Conference Championship after leading her team to an 84-70 win over USF.
By Rich Elliott
UNCASVILLE – There is something about playing games in March that brings out the best in the UConn women’s basketball team. A group of players that is so unselfish on the court collectively become so selfish when there is a championship at stake.
The top-ranked Huskies do not like to squander an opportunity to seize a championship. No matter if it is a conference regular season or tournament championship or the NCAA national championship they ultimately want to be hoisting the trophy.
This particular team is no different than their predecessors. They had the opportunity to win The American tournament championship over a three-day span at Mohegan Sun Arena. And like so many of their predecessors UConn reached its goal.
Tournament Most Outstanding Player Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led four starters in double figures with a game-high 23 points as the Huskies earned an 84-70 victory over South Florida Monday in tournament final before 6,499. It was the 20th conference tournament championship in team history.
"There’s a different vibe on our team come March,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We go about things a little bit differently than we do during the regular season. There’s a certain excitement that maybe isn’t there in February because it’s been a long season. But when it’s time to play in a conference championship or for the national championship in the NCAA tournament if you stay the same as you are during the regular season then you’re not going anywhere. You can’t stay the same. You can’t stay the same emotionally, mentally, physically. You’ve got to change.
"And there’s been very few years when there hasn’t been a real uptick, a real change in our team come March. And I would expect that the exact same thing is happening right now. The only problem is we have so many young guys that are going to play some roles that you don’t know how they’re going to react. That’s why it was so important for our four starters to really play great this tournament because that’s where it’s going to fall. It’s going to fall on them. Those other guys can come off the bench and give you a little bit. Gabby (Williams) gave us a lot. And Saniya (Chong) gave you a little bit. But those four guys are going to have to get it done. And hopefully we’ll get a little bit out of those other guys.’’
Mosqueda-Lewis, who also added six rebounds, Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson combined for 76 points against the Bulls. Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson were named to the all-tournament team.
Stewart finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Huskies, who have won 31 straight games since suffering their only loss at Stanford in overtime Nov. 17 (88-86). It was Stewart’s eighth double-double of the season and the 22nd of her career.
Tuck recorded her first career double-double with 17 points (8-of-11 FG) and a career-high 10 rebounds. Jefferson added 14 points (6-for-7 FG), five rebounds and five assists.
Jefferson, Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart played all but the final 38 seconds. Tuck played 27 minutes, sitting out the final 10:37 of the first half with two fouls and the final 1:37 of the second half.
"I think our team has done a good job of preparing themselves for March, preparing themselves for teams that are not just going to roll over for us whenever they play us,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. "And I think our team has done a good job of really spreading out the points or whether Morgan needs to get rebounds or Stewie needs to get rebounds or Moriah needs to score or I need to score. I think our team’s doing a really good job of getting contributions from a lot of people.’’
The Big Four of Jefferson (15.3), Mosqueda-Lewis (20.7), Stewart (17.0) and Tuck (11.3) combined for 64.3 points in wins over Cincinnati, East Carolina and South Florida. The total accounted for 68.2 percent of UConn’s scoring (94.3).
The Huskies, who donned white championship T-shirts and hats immediately following the game Monday, improved to 20-5 all-time in the conference tournament final. They have reached the final in 25 of the last 27 seasons (1993, 2004).
"I think we’re doing a great job considering that everybody on our team is really playing great,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. "Morgan’s doing well inside. Stewie’s playing great. Moriah’s really playing as confident as she has been all season.’’
Said Stewart: "I think (the AAC tournament) really prepared us for … Teams are going to give us their best shot. And three games in three days, it’s a lot but it’s fun. It’s exciting to play this many games. And I think that each game we’ve grown and our bench has gotten deeper. And Gabby coming off the bench, Saniya coming off the bench, Kiah (Stokes) coming off the bench, they all make big contributions.’’
The Huskies (32-1) have won 57 of their last 59 games played in March. They will now take aim at winning their third straight national championship – 10th overall.
UConn will begin play in the NCAA tournament either March 20 or 21 at Gampel Pavilion. If Jefferson, Mosqueda-Lewis, Stewart and Tuck continue to play at the level they did over the past three days, Auriemma likes the team’s chances for success in the coming weeks.
"I’m not bragging, but I’m rarely wrong in that scenario,’’ Auriemma said. "After you spend five months with your team you know them pretty well. And the years that we’ve gone to postseason play and we knew we were the best team in the country it turned out we were the best team in the country and we proved it. There has been a number of times where we’ve even gone to the Final Four and I knew that unless something magical happened we weren’t going to win. I just knew it. I don’t let the players know that, but I would keep my fingers crossed going, `Man, I hope this doesn’t happen, that doesn’t happen and that doesn’t happen.’ And then there’s years like last year and 2009 and 2010 and other years where you don’t even give it a second thought. You just know `we’re going there, we’re going to win it and that’s all there is to it.’
"So your team tells you a lot over a period of five months. And this team … This team’s not very loud so I don’t know. They haven’t said a lot. They’re constantly just very quiet. So I’m always kind of surprised by some of the things that they do because I watch them sometimes and I don’t think they can do them. And then they surprise me. But I also know that if our four starters play like they played this weekend and like they did in some of the big games that we played this year we’re going to be hard to beat. We’re going to be really hard to beat.’’