UNCASVILLE — Since the UConn women’s basketball team joined the American Athletic Conference, it has been dominate the regular season, destroy in the conference tournament and make it to the NCAA Final Four - wash, rinse and repeat.
Despite Katie Lou Samuelson missing the entire AAC tournament, the above statement is true, minus making the NCAA Final Four - so far. However, after the No. 1 seed Huskies defeated No. 2 seed UCF 66-45, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said he has noticed an increase in competition.
“We don’t have quite the team we had the last five years in this league,” Auriemma said. “The first five years in the conference, nobody in the country could beat us, much less teams in our league. This year we didn’t have quite the same team and teams in our league have gotten better.”
UConn (31-2, 17-0 The American) and UCF (26-6, 13-3 AAC) are used to playing a physical style of play against each other and the championship game was no different. Megan Walker was smacked on the nose when she reeled in a rebound less than a minute into the game. Then, with the score 13-7, Crystal Dangerfield fouled Kayla Thigpen hard on her layup attempt after she turned the ball over with 1:49 left in the first quarter. Dangerfield said they did their best to put the game away early in order to lessen the chippiness of UCF.
“I feel like we didn’t allow them to get to that point because we got on them early and put the game away,” Dangerfield said. “There was really no need for it. The closer the game is, the more you allow them to do that, but if you take care of the basketball part of it, everything else won’t matter.”
The Huskies were able to gain some momentum by the end of the first quarter after Christyn Williams blocked a shot by Kay Kay Wright, which led to Napheesa Collier driving to the lane and getting fouled. After Collier hit both free throws with :44 left, Collier stole the ball from Wright and drove to the lane for another layup to give the Huskies the 17-9 lead.
Dangerfield was tasked with shutting down Wright, who was named to the American All-Conference First Team after averaging 18.5 points and 4 rebounds per game this season. The Huskies point guard was able to limit Wright to only four points on two field goals.
“The last two games, USF and UCF, their top scorers were my matchups,” Dangerfield said. “Coach told us that our defense has to be taken personally. We don’t want them to score and especially if they are their scorers, we don’t want them to even touch the ball to begin with.”
The Huskies were able to put the Knights in the rearview mirror in the second quarter, as UConn scored 22 points compared to the Knights’ six. At halftime, UConn was up 39-15 and the UCF offense could not recover.
The Knights did get the better of UConn in the second half and outscored UConn 30-27. However, due to the Huskies’ huge opening half, it did not change the complexion of the game.
Freshman Christyn Williams was a key difference maker to pair with the American Conference Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Napheesa Collier. The lefty guard was able to get to the lane with ease and make the defender pay.
Within the first three minutes of the third quarter, Williams was able to cut for a nifty layup by Dangerfield, which was her fourth assist of the game and 200th of the season. With that dish, Dangerfield passed Renee Montgomery for the fifth most assists in a season for a UConn player.
Collier capped off her extraordinary tournament with 25 points and 14 rebounds, which led the team in both categories. There were a few plays where Collier would snag a rebound, run the floor and finish a layup. Auriemma said he had to tell Collier to look for her teammates at one point.
“(Collier) wants the ball every single possession,” Auriemma said. “So (when) she rebounds it, she is not looking to outlet. Almost like, ‘I’m not giving it to you guys because I don’t want to wait to get it back.’”
UCF head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said that Collier is the best player in the country, her UConn teammates have called her the best player in the country and Auriemma called her the best player in the country. However, things were not all warm and fuzzy between the two head coaches at the end of the game because of a trap they put on Kyla Irwin in the closing minutes.
“We clear our bench and put our subs in and all of a sudden there is a trap and they never trapped us one time the whole game,” Auriemma said. “It’s just dumb, it’s just dumb, it’s just dumb. My guys are just hoping they don’t dribble the ball off their foot. It is what it is. I coach my team, nobody else's.”
Freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa said she is excited to be a part of this championship team, when she considers where she was when they won it last year.
“Sometimes it seems surreal because I was watching the game on TV last year,” Nelson-Ododa said. “So just to be a part of it this year, it is really special. It was amazing to be able to win this and enjoy it with my teammates. It is more than I could ever have imagined.”
Dangerfield said the team has until tomorrow morning before class to celebrate and then it is on to the NCAA tournament.
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.