Seven years in the American Athletic Conference and seven conference championships for the Huskies, as with their 66-53 victory over UCF on Saturday, they once again clinched the top spot. Going back earlier than the American, it was UConn’s 26th conference title in 32 years.
“We screwed up the other six, huh,” Auriemma said. “It is pretty amazing because a whole bunch of those were done in the best conference in the country at the time. So it was something to really be proud of, to be able to win your conference when you’re competing against nothing but great teams every week.”
These past seven conference titles have come in a, let’s just say, less competitive league. In fact, in the seven seasons in the American, UConn has yet to lose a game.
“But regardless of what league we’ve been in, anytime you start the season, that’s goal No. 1,” Auriemma said. “Goal No. 1 is try to win the conference championship, regular season. It really is the winner of the conference. You have to prove it over a period of four or five months. You gotta win games. On the road, you gotta win them at home, so you prove that you’re the best team in the league. And then now they have a conference tournament and you have to go do it again over a period of three days, ‘cause they’re trying to get more teams in the NCAA tournament, they’re trying to make a lot of money. They’re not trying to prove who the best team in the league is. We just did that, so that’s our goal every year. We want to be the best team in the league, and we accomplished our goal.”
It was senior day for UConn, so just one of their usual five starters were on the court for tip-off, and that was Crystal Dangerfield. She was joined by Kyla Irwin, who was making her 18th start of the season, along with Molly Bent who was making her third and Batouly Camara and Evelyn Adebayo who were making their first.
The all-senior lineup was on the court for the first 2:30 of the game before Irwin, Bent, Camara and Adebayo were subbed out for Megan Walker, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Anna Makurat. They held UCF scoreless in their time on the court while recording two points on an Irwin layup off a Camara assist.
Walker led the Huskies in scoring with 20 points 6-of-14 shooting including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and also added 10 rebounds for her 9th double-double of the season.
UCF, while always one of the more physical teams in the conference, took it up a notch on Saturday. Early in the fourth quarter, Nelson-Ododa took a blow to the nose from the Knights’ Masseny Kaba that knocked her out for the remainder of the game. Kaba got hit with an intentional foul, and it would not be the first one the Knights would pick up, as just over a minute later Dangerfield took her own shot to the face from Diamond Battles. Battles also received an intentional foul, and Dangerfield was able to remain in the game.
Then, in the next minute, it looked like UCF was about to get its third intentional foul of the quarter after Walker appeared to also get hit in the face, but no foul was called.
“This team is physical, we knew that coming in, you know it’s just one of those things you have to deal with,” Walker said. “You can’t back down, you have to show them who you are.”
The Huskies outscored the Knights 16-4 in the first, and that proved to be the difference, as in the final three quarters UConn held just a two-point advantage and even lost quarters two and four.
UConn got strong performances from Dangerfield and Makurat who put up 14 and 17 points respectively, and Nelson-Ododa had eight points and seven rebounds.
Of the five usual starters, it was Christyn Williams who had the worst afternoon, scoring just three points on 1-of-6 shooting including 1-of-5 from three in 37 minutes. She has struggled to find her shooting stroke all season, and with the conference and then national tournaments coming up, it’s something the team will need her to find when they play the better teams in the country.
The Huskies have road games at Cincinnati and Houston on Wednesday and Saturday and then are back at the XL Center to host USF to close out the season on Monday, March 2.