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UConn Gets Defensive In Win Over USF in AAC Tournament Final By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 09, 2016
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UNCASVILLE – It is easy for fans to become enamored with the high octane offense of the UConn women’s basketball team. All five starters can score from multiple spots on the floor. The transition game is mesmerizing.

The top-ranked Huskies lead the nation in scoring (87.6), field goal shooting percentage (.522) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.82). The numbers are unquestionably impressive. Yet, the offensive skills of this group are not the sole reason why UConn is the overwhelming favorite to win an NCAA record fourth straight national championship.

The Huskies are on another level than the opposition defensively, too. A much greater level. And they proved it once again Monday night in The American tournament final against No. 21 South Florida.

UConn held the Bulls to 37.9 percent shooting from the field and forced 18 turnovers in a 77-51 victory before 7,073 at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Huskies outscored South Florida 64-37 over the final three quarters.

``There were some sequences that everything played out perfectly,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``That doesn’t happen a lot. But all the rotations were just about perfect. Everybody was exactly where they needed to be. A lot of defense is just really hard work and it’s really a lot of commitment to doing it. Some kids aren’t good defensive players because they just don’t care. They don’t want to be. And sometimes you play really good defensively and the other guy’s just better offensively.

``But the majority of the shots that South Florida got they had to work really hard to get those. And it was the right people shooting the ball from the places we wanted them to shoot it from. And they just really, really helped each other and they really communicated. There was a little bit of a different look in their eyes (Monday), our players.’’

The Huskies, who have won 69 straight games, claimed their third straight AAC tournament championship and their 21st conference tournament championship overall. They defeated South Florida 84-70 in the final last season.

UConn (32-0) will now have nearly two weeks off before beginning play in the NCAA tournament at Gampel Pavilion March 19 or 20.

The Huskies forced South Florida into five shot clock violations, including three in a span of 4:19 in the second quarter, and only a timeout called by the Bulls avoided a five-second call with 3:53 left in the first half.

``We take a lot of pride,’’ UConn forward Morgan Tuck said. ``I know a lot of people think we’re just really offensively talented and we can score a lot of points. But I think a reason why it’s hard to beat us is we score a lot of points but we also limit the other team from scoring. So, for us, defense is one of our main priorities.’’

Tournament Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart had 22 points, three rebounds, three assists and seven blocks to lead UConn. It marked the second time in her career that she has won the award (2014).

Moriah Jefferson, Katie Lou Samuelson and Tuck were named to the All-Tournament Team. They were joined by the South Florida duo of Shalethia Stringfield and Courtney Williams.

A top priority for UConn Monday was limiting Williams, who had averaged 25.5 points in the first two games of the tournament and had scored at least 20 points in five of the first eight games in her career against the Huskies. As expected, Jefferson fully embraced the defensive assignment and thrived.

``She’s a very active defender,’’ Williams said. ``She’ll never let you get comfortable.’’

Williams would lead South Florida (23-9) with 16 points. But she scored 14 in the second half and was a combined was 7-for-18 from the field.

Williams made the first basket of the game. She then went scoreless for the next 20:45, missing six straight shots before making a layup with 8:35 left in the third quarter.

``She’s a great player so any time you come out and you know that you have to stop somebody like that or you have to try to limit them it’s a good challenge for you,’’ Jefferson said. ``And I think, not only myself, but Gabby (Williams) and the entire team we played really good defense on her getting help and having a lot of cushion.’’

Samuelson added 13 points, a career-high seven rebounds, two assists and two steals for the Huskies. Jefferson had 12 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Tuck finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.

With 395 career blocks, Stewart needs two to surpass Rebecca Lobo (396) and become UConn’s record holder.

``We take a lot of pride in playing defense,’’ Stewart said. ``I think that we know that we can score points. Defensively, we want to make sure we pressure teams, don’t let them get the shots they want to get and in turn we’ll turn that momentum to our side.’’

Heading into the NCAA tournament, UConn leads the nation in scoring defense (47.9) and is fourth in field percentage defense (.331). However, Auriemma was not sold that this team would be dominant defensive unit at the start of the season.

In Jefferson, Kia Nurse, Stewart and Tuck, he knew the ingredients were there. But defense takes work. A lot of work to be the best in the nation.

``It’s just a matter of putting it all together and having everybody be coordinated in an effort to make sure that it looks good,’’ Auriemma said. ``And Lou’s gotten better defensively. We’ve improved a lot I think defensively as the season went on, and that’s all you hope to do. But come NCAA tournament time you’re going to be playing a lot of teams that can score. And sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to tip your hat to the other guys. But defense is effort, and we had great effort (Monday).’’

Fueled by its stifling performance defensively, UConn finally got untracked offensively in the second quarter when it was 10-for-18 from the field and committed one turnover in outscoring South Florida 23-10.

The Huskies were 18-for-27 from the field in the second half, making 28 of their last 42 shots overall in improving to 20-0 all-time against the Bulls.

“We are being engaged,” Jefferson said. “We are talking. And any time we are communicating with each other it’s easy to know where you’re supposed to rotate. Early in the season it was kind of dead silent. So people were getting beat, but nobody knew to rotate or anything like that. We have really been staying on the red line and just communicating.”

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