Women’s Basketball: Huskies hit American milestone, advance to finals for rematch with USF

UConn and USF will tip off at 5 p.m. for the American Championship. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

For the fourth consecutive year, the American Athletic Conference championship game for women’s basketball will be between UConn and USF. The Huskies clinched their berth to the final with a dominant 75-21 victory over Cincinnati Monday night.

With the semifinal victory UConn (31-0) won its 100th consecutive game against American opponents, improving to 100-0 since the conference’s inception in 2013-14.

“I’ve run out of ways to describe some of this stuff…” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of his team’s latest milestone.  “It must not be easy to do, because we’re the only ones doing it. So, there must be something that we’re doing that allows us to put ourselves in position to do that.”

The Huskies put the Bearcats away early with a record-tying first half that resulted in a 43-5 lead. With senior leader Gabby Williams on the bench with an injured hip, UConn locked in defensively.

UConn’s defense held the Bearcats scoreless for the entire second quarter, the first time the Huskies have allowed zero points in a quarter. Cincinnati scored just five points in the first half, tying UConn’s program record for fewest points in a half.

Cincinnati (19-12) shot just 8-58 in the game for a 13.8 percent field goal percentage, the lowest rate for a UConn opponent this season. The Huskies held Houston to 20.3 percent in their previous season-best defensive performance.

“I think we did a good job of getting out in front of passing lanes and also covering up for people…” UConn senior Kia Nurse said. “Any time we can turn them over or get a defensive rebound one shot and done, that was our bread and butter.”

Cincinnati’s scoreless second quarter was part of a 38-0 run by the Huskies, nearly tying their season-high 43-0 run against SMU in February. UConn also went on a 21-0 run in the quarterfinal matchup against Tulane and Monday’s run was another edition in a season full of them.

“I don’t know how to explain the runs,” Auriemma said. “You can say, ‘Well, the other teams you’re playing.’ We’ve had some runs against really good teams that you can’t explain. I think our defense has been pretty solid all year long… Maybe because we play good defense every night, we get a lot of opportunities to get out in transition.”

Azurá Stevens entered the starting lineup for the injured Williams and had a game-high 21 points on 10-13 shooting while grabbing 13 rebounds. Stevens had a double-double in the first half alone and added four blocks to her final line without committing any personal fouls.

“My role changed a little bit tonight but not really,” Stevens said. “I’m also expected to do what I’m expected to do every night and I think as a team we did a good job of pulling together a solid win for Gabby.”

Dealing with a hip injury, Williams could have played limited minutes in Monday’s game but Auriemma decided to take caution with more meaningful games coming up.

Considered day-to-day, Williams may be in the lineup Tuesday night for the final against USF. UConn has won each of the previous three American championship games against the Bulls with an average margin of victory of 32 points.

USF has two First Team All-Conference players in Kitija Laksa and Maria Jespersen. Laksa ranks second in the American with 20.7 points per game this season and she’s ready for a third shot at the top-ranked Huskies.

“It’s a great opportunity to play the best team in the country three times a year,” Laksa said. “It’s a privilege, I think. We’re excited, we trust the coaching staff and they’re going to game plan and we’ll be ready for (Tuesday).”

UConn and USF will tip off at 5 p.m. for the American Championship. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Josh Buser is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at joshua.buser@uconn.edu.