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Big Three Lead UConn Into Sweet 16 With Big Win Over Duquesne By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 22, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has seen it before many times. The more that is on the line the more it seems seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck thrive under the glare of the spotlight.

They are three-time national champions. Stewart is the top player in the country. Jefferson is an All-American and the nation’s top point guard. Tuck will officially be named an All-American in the coming weeks.

With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line Monday against ninth-seeded Duquesne in the final home game in which Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck would share the court together, they collectively delivered another show-stopping performance by combining for 61 points, 29 rebounds and 16 assists to help the top-ranked Huskies roll to a 97-51 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament before 6,316 at Gampel Pavilion.

``I’ve been saying this pretty much all year that whenever the games get bigger and the stakes get higher as the season goes along our three seniors play even better than they normally play,’’ Auriemma said. ``And they play great most of the time. (Monday) was just a magnificent performance by the three of them. It was really something to see. Just the way they feed off each other, the way they instill confidence in their teammates. They’ve grown up so much since four years ago when they were freshmen. And it was a perfect way to end this part of their career. It was really perfect.’’

UConn (34-0) will meet fifth-seeded Mississippi State (28-7) in the Bridgeport regional semifinals Saturday at Webster Bank Arena (11:30 a.m.; ESPN). The Huskies have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 23rd straight season – 24th overall – dating back to a 74-71 loss to Louisville in the first round March 17, 1993.

Stanford currently holds the second longest active streak with nine straight appearances.

Stewart totaled 21 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and five blocks in recording her 14th double-double this season and the 39th of her career. Tuck had 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Jefferson finished with 20 points, including a career-high six 3-pointers, seven assists, three steals and zero turnovers.

``To come out and play this well, and I think for all three of us to have a huge impact on the game, you couldn’t write it any better for our last home game here,’’ Stewart said. ``It gives us great momentum going into next weekend.’’

Said Tuck: ``We know this is the most important time and this is when you’re supposed to play your best basketball. So all three of us know that and we’re trying to do that.’’

The Huskies have won 71 straight games. It is the second longest winning streak in the history of NCAA Division I women’s college basketball, 19 behind their record of 90 set from Nov. 16, 2008 through Dec. 30, 2010.

Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck left the court together Monday with 5:49 left in the fourth quarter. Tuck played 35 minutes. Jefferson and Stewart each logged 34.

``I didn’t want to waste any more time,’’ Auriemma said. ``The other coaches were pretty adamant about just get them out. `Let’s just get them out.’ And I thought it was the best way to just move on, just get all three of them out at the same time and let them … They’ve done so much together. I thought that was the right thing to do.’’

Jefferson and Stewart definitively played their final game at Gampel Pavilion. Tuck has one year of eligibility remaining. A decision regarding her future looms.

The trio is a combined 35-1 at UConn’s on-campus venue, winning the last 33 games there.

``You knew, obviously, any time we need them they’re going to be there,’’ Nurse said. ``And the consistency that they bring every day that makes you understand that no matter what happens they’ve got your back. And their last game here I figured something special would happen. That was a pretty cool farewell.’’

Napheesa Collier added 11 points and five rebounds off the bench for UConn.

The Huskies led 20-17 following a 3-pointer by April Robinson with 6:37 left in the first half. They had missed their first three shots of the quarter before Stewart scored on a putback 17 seconds later and four of their first five.

Yet, as much as UConn had struggled against Duquesne offensively, led by the Big Three it rediscovered its rhythm and turned a close game into another rout. A 3-pointer by Jefferson triggered a 22-4 run to end the half.

Tuck had seven points in the surge. Jefferson added six. Stewart had four. UConn made 7 of its final 12 shots of the quarter to open a 42-21 lead at halftime.

``Our defense stepped up a little more,’’ Jefferson said. ``We were giving them too many open 3s in the beginning and then some of the shots that weren’t going in for us we started knocking in. So we got a couple stops. Score. Stop. Score. Possessions. And then after that it just kept going up.’’

UConn outscored Duquesne 77-34 over the final 26:37.

Deva’Nyar Workman led the Dukes (28-6) with 17 points (7-for-22 FG), six rebounds and three assists.

``We were able to go out there and kind of do the things that we wanted to do,’’ Tuck said. ``And we just wanted to make sure that we did whatever we could to win. And so I think we were able to do that.’’

Jefferson and Stewart have as many as four games remaining this season. Tuck could accompany them to the WNBA as well.

Even in the final hour of their career, they continue to amaze. And Auriemma continues to be impressed.

``One of the things I’ve said, this goes to all those people out there that are talking about what league we’re in and who do we play and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,’’ Auriemma said. ``If we played 20 Top 10 teams in the span of three months these guys would all play 35 minutes, 36 minutes and they would do exactly what they did (Monday) because that’s who they are. So it’s got nothing to do with coaching or tactics that we’re using or any of that. These guys grew up over the last couple years and this is what they do.

``I remember telling (the media) before we go to South Carolina, `Oh, what are you guys going to learn?’ I’m going to learn that my three guys are really, really, really good and they’re going to play great. And then everybody else, cross my fingers. So now it’s NCAA tournament time. `What do you learn?’ Our three guys are really, really, really good. The other guys? Cross your fingers.’’

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