HARTFORD – Another game in the American Athletic Conference.
Another conference win for the UConn women’s basketball team.
The No. 1 Huskies (11-0, 1-0 the American) took on the Memphis Tigers (5-9, 0-1 the American) in their conference opener at the XL Center Sunday afternoon on the last day of 2017 and won in characteristic fashion, defeating the Tigers 97-49 in another American blowout.
Senior forward Gabby Williams was the star Sunday afternoon, finishing 10-10 from the field with 20 points, seven assists, four steals and three rebounds. Williams was just shy of tying Rebecca Lobo’s school record for most field goals made in a game without missing. Lobo finished 11-11 on Dec. 23, 1994 of her senior year.
Williams was a dominant force in nearly every aspect of the game, but head coach Geno Auriemma thought that her great day started with her defense. She was a menace throughout, forcing a lot of pressure on the Tigers as they tried to break the Huskies’ press, leading to 18 turnovers for the game.
“I thought the biggest thing was just how active (Williams) was on defense,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “You know, I think that led to everything else… I think the time away really did wonders for her. Hopefully, we can put together two or three weeks of this. It was a great start for this part of the season.”
Williams’ ability to make mid-range jumpers and drive into the paint spaced the floor for the rest of her teammates, and meant she could show off her innate gift to find open shooters with inch-perfect passes. The Huskies finished with six players in double figures largely because of Williams unique set of skills that open the floor for a balanced, and potentially unstoppable, offense.
“We have stretches where the ball moves great,” Auriemma said. “That allows us to stretch the floor a lot and create openings in the lane. And Gabby is a big part of that, you know, ‘cause she touches the ball a lot. So, when she’s on top of her game and she’s moving the ball like she was today…it’s really hard to keep up with our offense.”
Memphis stuck around with the Huskies for the first five minutes of the game, keeping it as close as 12-9 with 4:21 remaining in the first quarter. However, after the first TV timeout, it was all UConn. The Huskies went on a 17-6 run for the remainder of the first period and the game blew open from there as the Tigers never cut the deficit to within single digits again.
Later, an 18-6 run over the last five minutes of the third quarter extended the lead to 34 heading into the final frame. Freshman Megan Walker hadn’t entered the game prior to the big run, and had sat out for a few games after suffering from the flu, but made her presence known with an extremely efficient performance off the bench.
“I asked (Walker) at halftime, I said ‘Are you okay to play?’ She said, ‘Yeah I’m good to go,’” Auriemma said. “Obviously, she’s really talented. Everybody knows that. This is the perfect game (to get her going), and hopefully this week we can get her in some kind of rhythm.”
Almost immediately after Walker came off the bench, she hit a corner three which set the tone for her to succeed the rest of the second half. The highly-touted freshman finished with 12 points on 5-6 shooting, along with four rebounds, in just 13 minutes on the court.
“What was great is (Walker) seemed like she didn’t miss a beat,” Williams said of the freshman. “You could tell that she was just really excited to be out playing basketball again… For her to be out that long, you could tell she was just hungry. She was ready to play.”
The Huskies were running on all cylinders Sunday and even excelled at parts of the game in which they occasionally struggle, such as offensive rebounding. UConn had 16 boards on the offensive glass against the Tigers, who just had 16 total rebounds. Six different Huskies finished with at least two offensive rebounds, and the team as a whole finished with 18 second chance points.
“For us, (offensive rebounding) is always a sticking point. We feel like we need to offensive rebound better in general,” Auriemma said. “Today, (the rebounds) came from a lot of different people. So it wasn’t one person, and we generally don’t do good job in that department. We shoot and run back because we think it’s going in all the time. So it’s been a little bit of an emphasis in practice and I’m glad it showed today.”
The Huskies have now played and won each of their 71 regular season conference games since the American Athletic Conference began in 2013 after conference realignment. That total rises to 83 games when one accounts for tournament play as well. That makes UConn a whopping 83-0 against the American.
While the gap between UConn and the rest of the conference is evident, Auriemma recognizes that there is some good talent in the teams that will follow the Huskies in the standings come the end of the season. The long-time coach expects the competition for second to be a close one.
“I think the conference race will be pretty tight,” Auriemma said. “I think there’s maybe four or five teams that it’d be hard to separate them. But yeah, the way it’s been, it’s been a big, big gap between us and everyone else. But among everyone else, I think it’s gotten a little bit better. (The conference) has gotten a little bit better every year.”
Next up, the Huskies will hit the road to take on the East Carolina Pirates Wednesday at the Minges Coliseum in Greenville, North Carolina as they look to extend their undefeated run in American Athletic Conference play.