Women's Basketball: Strong defensive start gives bench extra minutes prior to conference championship

Moriah Jefferson takes the ball up the court during UConn's 82-35 victory over Tulane in the American Athletic Conference semifinals at Mohegan Sun on Sunday March 6, 2016. Jefferson finished with two points, five assists and four rebounds. (Bailey Wright/The Daily Campus)

UNCASVILLE—The last time UConn squared off against Tulane, the Green Wave came out fearless and led 13-6 at the end of the first quarter on Huskies’ home court before an eventual 80-40 loss on Senior Day.

On Sunday, UConn flipped the script and continued their tactical destruction of American Athletic Conference opponents, locking down the Green Wave en route to an 82-35 win in the conference tournament semifinals.

“The last time we played them, even though our shots weren’t going in our defense wasn’t good,” UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson said. “We wanted to make sure we were defending really well and keeping them from getting the shots that they wanted.”

The Huskies got off to hot start offensively, but it was their defense that paved the way for UConn’s third-straight conference championship appearance.

Tulane did not score double digits in a quarter until it scored 10 points in the fourth, when the game was well out of reach. The Green Wave shot just 30.4 percent from the field against the Huskies, and UConn held Tulane to just 29 points in first 38:51 of the game before three pointers from Shakira Harding and Courtnie Latham gave the Green Wave 35 points for the day.

The 29 points would have been the least the Huskies have allowed in conference tournament play, lower than the 32 points West Virginia scored against UConn in 2010, but Harding and Latham’s back-to-back threes prevented the Green Wave from entering the UConn record books. Latham’s three also made her the only Tulane player to score in double figures, finishing the night with 11 points.

UConn’s fast start allowed the Huskies’ bench to gain some useful postseason experience. Gabby Williams posted yet another solid performance, scoring eight points and five rebounds in 20 minutes. Freshman Napheesa Collier added seven points, three rebounds and three steals while Natalie Butler chipped in seven points and a game-high nine rebounds in 15 minutes.

All in all, the Huskies scored 27 bench points and featured a lineup of solely non-starters for the entire fourth quarter.

“I think it’s really good for us to learn to play with each other,” Williams said. “I think Napheesa came in and had some really great steals, she rebounded her butt off today and [Natalie] did too, Nat had a lot of good offensive rebounds. Now we just have to learn how we can play with each other in our offensive set.”

After struggling in Saturday’s win against the East Carolina, Butler’s woes carried over into the matchup against the Green Wave, as Butler struggled to get going early. However, the redshirt sophomore finished strong, scoring five of her seven points in the fourth quarter and demonstrating her ability to be a game-changing rebounder off the bench

“Yesterday I wasn’t mentally ready and you can’t let that affect you, I wanted to reset so I can help my team out,” Butler said of her performance against ECU. “It was good, I felt like I finally got my flow this game towards the end…So I definitely felt like knocking those shots in helped me a lot.”

Butler’s play could prove crucial down the stretch for the Huskies as they prepare for the NCAA tournament as well as the American Conference Championship game. Earlier in the season, opponents such as Maryland had success going right at UConn in the post, but the 6-foot-5-inch Butler serves as a big and physical post presence that can change the game on both ends of the floor and especially on the glass.

“That’s what I did my freshman year, all I did was crash was the boards and I’ve sort of gotten away from that with the injury and everything like that,” Butler said. “Rebounding is something I do really well, and it’s something I feel like I can bring to the team, so that was definitely my main focus for tonight, especially since my shot wasn’t going in the other night.”


Dan Madigan is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.