UNCASVILLE — For the third-straight year, UConn is top dog in the American Athletic Conference.
The No. 1 Huskies (32-0) defeated rival No. 21 South Florida 77-51 for their third-straight tournament championship and improved to 63-0 all-time in The American. The victory also marks 69-straight wins dating back to last season and yet another win against the Bulls, who are 0-20 against the Huskies since 2002.
“In games like this, we do some little things that are different,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of the Huskies’ conference championship performance. “We don’t run our run-of-the-mill stuff. We do some other things, we tweak things a little bit.”
After fast starts in the first two rounds of the tournament, UConn struggled to get going early against South Florida, as the Bulls jumped out to a 14-13 at the end of the first quarter. It marked the second-straight time the Bulls have led UConn after the first quarter and the fourth time UConn has trailed after one period of play this season.
UConn would continue to trail early in the second quarter until a layup from Morgan Tuck tied the game at 17. Forty seconds later, Breanna Stewart completed a three-point play after getting fouled while making a layup. Stewart would sink the free throw to put the Huskies up 20-17 and give them their first lead of the night.
After that, it was all UConn.
Katie Lou Samuelson would help the Huskies pull away as they headed into halftime, scoring eight points in the final 1:52 to help UConn to a 36-24 halftime lead.
“I think it was a really big lift for me personally but also for our team,” Samuelson said. “I think we just got really excited and were ready to go because it came off of two good defensive stops.”
Samuelson would finish the night with 13 points and seven rebounds, capping off a three-day span in which the standout freshman solidified herself as one of the Huskies’ most reliable scoring threats, averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting 9-for-16 (56.3 percent) from beyond the arc in her three conference tournament games.
“I’m really excited to keep moving forward and go into the NCAA Tournament now,” Samuelson. “I’m just ready to go.”
The Huskies wasted no time putting the game out of reach in the second half, embarking on a 9-0 run powered by Stewart and Kia Nurse to stretch the lead to 48-27 with 5:11 left in the third quarter. Stewart’s nine third-quarter points help offset a breakout quarter from Courtney Williams, who scored 10 of her team-high 16 points for the Bulls in the third after scoring just two in the first half.
Williams scored over 20 points in both of the regular season meetings between South Florida and the Huskies, but struggled getting going early, largely in part to stout defense from Moriah Jefferson.
“It’s really fun, it’s also really tiring,” Jefferson said of guarding Williams. “You’re literally face-guarding her … sprinting all around the court for the entire 30 seconds or whatever it is. It’s fun, it’s really fun but you have to have the mental confidence to do it for the whole quarter.”
Stewart finished the night with a game-high 22 points as one of four Huskies in double figures, and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Samuelson added 13 points, while Jefferson and Morgan Tuck had 12 and 11 points respectively and were all named to The American’s all-tournament team, joined by South Florida’s Williams and Shalethia Sprinfield. Other than Williams, Laura Ferreira and Alisia Jenkins were the only Bulls players in double digits with 12 points each.
UConn would finish off the Bulls for good by making their first four shots of the fourth quarter, and after a missed shot from Jefferson, a layup from Gabby Williams made it a 28-point lead for the Huskies with 7:33 left to play, their largest lead of the night before crusiing to the 77-51 victory.
The Huskies enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed for the third-straight year, and will now wait a week to find out their NCAA Tournament opponents as they look for their fourth-straight national championship and 11th in program history. The NCAA women’s basketball selection show will air Monday, March 14 at 7 p.m. on ESPN.