UNCASVILLE— Prior to their American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal matchup with the undefeated UConn Huskies, UCF had a plan: play tough, physical basketball and keep the ball in their hands as long as possible.
For 10 minutes, it worked.
UCF made things interesting in the opening quarter at Mohegan Sun Arena, sticking with the Huskies basket for basket before trailing 18-14 through the first 10 minutes. From there on out, UConn’s talent was simply too much as the Huskies (31-0) rolled past the Knights for a 78-56 victory to clinch their fourth-straight conference championship game appearance as members of the American.
“The longer we had the ball in our hands, the better,” UCF head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “The game-plan was to keep the ball in our hands as long as possible because they’re just so dangerous in transition.”
While UConn jumped out to an 8-0 in the first three minutes, UCF managed to claw back against the Huskies, pulling within three after a 3-pointer from Aliyah Gregory midway through the first and cut the lead two with 2:16 in the period after a layup from Zykira Lewis before a jumper from Crystal Dangerfield made it 18-14 to end the quarter.
“Obviously that was a very physical and very hard-fought game on our end of it. Defensively we really had to dig in and do a lot of stuff, and we were able to make some adjustments at half time but nothing was easy,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Their style of play is not easy to deal with.”
With two 3-pointers in the first, sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson tied Renee Montgomery for the fourth most 3-pointers in a single season with 99. Samuelson would hit her third and final 3-pointer of the night four minutes into the second quarter to reach 100 on the season, joining Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Wendy Davis as the only UConn players to accomplish the feat.
After Dangerfield came into the game with less than two minutes in the first, she stayed on the court to begin the second quarter and made an immediate impact. Dangerfield crossed up two UCF defenders 1:40 into the second quarter and drove into the paint to find a streaking Napheesa Collier for an easy bucket to give UConn a 24-17 lead.
The freshman point guard finished the day with 14 points and three assists, while Collier record her 14th career double-double with a 16-point, 14-rebound performance.
“She’s been really aggressive. Se can penetrate against any team I feel like,” Gabby Williams said of Dangerfield. “It seems like every day she’s just taking a step forward.”
The Knights pulled within seven points after a jumper from Gregory made it 30-23 with four minutes left in the first half, but UConn’s Kia Nurse single-handedly rebuilt the Huskies’ lead with five-straight points to put UConn up 12. After scoring just two points and playing 15 minutes in Saturday’s win over Tulsa, Nurse looked more like her old self against the Knights, finishing with nine points in 21 minutes.
While UCF hung around in the first half, the Huskies pulled away in the third quarter to seal their fourth-straight American Athletic Conference tournament title game appearance. Following a first half in which they shot just 38 percent, UConn shot 68 percent in the third to outscore the Knights 24-12
“The way we responded in the third quarter, the way we came out in the second half, was a lot of fun for me to see because our players generally respond to challenges and I thought they did a good job of that,” Auriemma said.
Collier scored six of UConn’s first eight second-half points to get things started, and Williams scored seven of her 16 points in the third as UConn to help the Huskies lead 61-37 through three quarters.
Dangerfield (12 second-half points), Williams (nine) and Collier (eight) did most of the damage in the final half for UConn, picking up for Samuelson, who missed all three of her second-half shot attempts to finish with 12 points.
Much like Samuelson, UCF’s star duo Lewis and Gregory failed to make an impact in the second half. After the two combined for 19 of the Knight’s 25 points on 8-24 shooting in the first half, Lewis and Gregory had just 10 second-half points before back-to-back 3-pointers from Lewis in the final minute gave her a game-high points on the night.
“They adjusted their defense a little, they were not letting us come off on ball screens,” Gregory said. “Because we were getting shots in different places and they were either doubling [Lewis] or doubling me, of course our post players are open so that’s going to require us to take less shots.”
With the win, UConn will play USF, who defeated No.25 Temple 63-58 on Sunday, Monday night at 7 p.m. for a chance at the program’s 22nd conference tournament championship. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2.