UNCASVILLE – To win the American Athletic Conference Championship, the UConn women’s basketball team had to play USF in the final for the fourth consecutive season. This year’s edition followed the pattern of the previous three, as the Huskies came away with another conference title, defeating the Bulls 70-54 Tuesday evening at Mohegan Sun Arena.
UConn (32-0) was sparked by senior forward Gabby Williams’ return to the starting lineup. Williams missed Monday’s semifinal win because of a hip injury, but was back in the lineup for the final and was making plays all over the court. Williams finished with a team-high 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists and five steals.
“When you have somebody like Gabby and she plays the way she played tonight, number one it’s fun to watch,” Auriemma said. “But number two, they don’t have anybody on their team that can compensate for that, that can handle what she was doing tonight. She got some help, but I think without her… there’s no way that we would win.”
Williams shot 9-11 from the field in what may have been her final game against an American opponent. She did not appear to be held back by her injury and played 32 minutes in the win.
“I knew that if I was going to make the decision to play that I was going to have to go out there and attack it just like any other game,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to show that, ‘Oh, well, you know I’m halfway there.’ So if I’m going to play, I’m going to play like I always do.”
USF (26-7) played even with the Huskies for much of the first quarter and matched UConn by shooting 8-14 from the field. The Bulls were down 21-17 after the opening frame. But like so many UConn games this season, the Huskies pulled away with a 34-15 run over the next two quarters to take a 55-32 lead into the fourth.
The Bulls were impressive in the final quarter, outscoring the Huskies 22-15 despite the UConn starters playing a majority of the quarter. Junior guard Kitija Laksa scored 16 of her game-high 26 points in the fourth, giving everything she had to try to claw back into the game.
“There was not going to be any repeat of what happened the first two times, it’s just not that time of the year for that kind of stuff,” Auriemma said. “They’re too good and Laksa is just too good to keep under wraps for three straight games.”
With Williams’ return, Azurá Stevens was relegated to her usual spot on the bench. Stevens was efficient once again, scoring 13 points on 6-9 shooting and adding seven rebounds and three blocks over 20 minutes. The first-year Husky was a crucial piece to the championship and she’s made tremendous strides adjusting to her role with UConn.
“Embracing that role on defense, just trying to be a help as much as I can and protect the rim,” Stevens said. “And on offense, just exploiting different mismatches around the basket.”
Stevens was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after averaging 16.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and three blocks per game. Although it’s uncommon to see a bench player receive a tournament Most Outstanding Player award, Auriemma knows Stevens is much more than her sixth-player status.
“We don’t see Azurá as someone who doesn’t start for us. We see her the same as anyone else in the starting lineup… we have a starting six,” Auriemma said. “Today and throughout this tournament… She’s a difference maker in the games. That’s very rare to have somebody coming off the bench that can do that.”
UConn will turn its attention to the NCAA Tournament, where it will be the No. 1 overall seed. The Huskies’ first two games will be at Gampel Pavilion, but they will get at least nine days off before their first game in the tournament. Headed into the NCAA Tournament, UConn remains undefeated with regular season and conference tournament titles.
“There’s always something that we want to get better at,” Williams said. “I think that’s what keeps this program so good. There’s never a moment where we’re like, ‘Ok, we got it. We can just kind of coast through it.’ I think we have our next goal set. (The American Championship) was one, so now we have our first game back at Gampel so we’ll have new goals for that.”
Josh Buser is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.