Seven regular seasons, zero losses.
The UConn women’s basketball team closed out its final American Athletic Conference regular season with an exclamation point on Monday with an end-to-end rout of USF, 80-39, at the XL Center. The Huskies will leave the conference having never lost a single regular season game in seven years, going a perfect 116-0.
“If you’re a pessimist, you’ll say, ‘Well really, there really wasn’t any competition in your league.’ If you’re an optimist, you say, ‘Wow, you guys must’ve played really, really good all those games,’” head coach Geno Auriemma said when asked about that flawless record after the win. “I like to look at it as, the goal was to win the league every year, not to go undefeated every year. That just kinda happened.”
USF played UConn (26-3, 16-0 The American) tight just a few weeks ago, even leading by four at the half. But this feels like a different UConn team, and as especially evident on Monday, the Huskies appear to be finding their groove at the perfect time. Unlike the first meeting, Monday’s outcome was never in question, as UConn led by 39 points at halftime, forcing more USF first half turnovers (15) than points allowed (14).
“I don’t know about you guys, but that wasn’t fun for me,” USF head coach Jose Fernandez announced with a smile as he walked into the press conference room after the game. “They played at a totally different pace … Tampa was completely different.”
Junior Megan Walker put on a sharpshooting clinic, drilling five of her seven 3-point attempts to lead the Huskies with 23 points along with seven rebounds and five assists. Crystal Dangerfield, Christyn Williams and Aubrey Griffin each added 13 points in the victory.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the season right now,” Walker said. “What’s led to it is everyone’s on the same page — everyone’s touching the ball, we’re moving, we’re cutting … We’re peaking at the right time.”
Although UConn went the first two minutes without a point, its defense was near-impenetrable to start the game. USF (18-12, 10-6 The American) had five turnovers before its first made field goal. Once UConn’s shots started falling, the Bulls found themselves staring at a 22-4 hole before the first quarter even ended.
“It starts on defense,” Dangerfield said after the win. “When we went down there a couple weeks ago, it was a battle in the first half. Tonight, before you could blink, it was 20-4. That’s what we wanted and obviously, we’ve played better in the last couple games.”
The defensive clamps only got tighter in the second quarter, in which the Bulls made just one of their 15 field goal attempts. Even in a rare moment of defensive confusion for UConn, a USF player appeared to have an open look only for it to be swatted away by Olivia Nelson-Ododa, one of her three blocks on the night. The Bulls got the offensive board, but Nelson-Ododa was once again there to poke away the entry pass, forcing a shot clock violation.
“They’re probably as disciplined offensively as any team that we’ll play, so we were trying to disrupt their rhythm,” Auriemma said. “We executed it perfectly, especially that first half. That was as good a team defensive performance as we’ve seen all season long, because they’re not an easy team to defend.”
By the time USF surpassed the 10-point mark, the Bulls had already coughed it up 13 times — and UConn had 46 points. A 19-0 run in the second quarter all but put the game away before the halftime buzzer sounded, a dramatic turnaround from the last time the teams faced off.
“We certainly have improved. If you think back to some of the games we played earlier in the season and look at the last three games, we’re significantly better,” Auriemma said. “It’s taken a long time, but we’re doing a lot of good things that almost never happened three months ago … I like where we are.”
Defense seems to kickstart the team, but ball movement and transition offense could be the key determinants of whether UConn is fated for the Final Four or an early exit. In the first half, the Huskies had assists on 15 of their 20 field goals, largely thanks to some superb fast breaks and outlet passing. In the third quarter, in which UConn played even with USF, they had just three assists.
“It’s really just about moving on offense, we’re not standing around as much as we did earlier in the season,” Dangerfield said. “When the ball moves, it’s a lot easier.”
After the massive first half, UConn coasted to the finish line in the second. Walker earned her fourth-straight 20-point game, putting an exclamation point on what her coach believes is an AAC Player of the Year season.
“We’ve played all the teams, and I haven’t seen anybody that’s played better more consistently than Megan,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think it’s a very difficult choice.”
After the game, Walker smiled at the recognition, but clearly has sights set on a bigger prize.
“It would mean a lot,” Walker said on potentially winning the award. “It’s another accolade, but at the end of the day, if I get it or if I don’t, I’m just focused on what I can do for this team to put us in a better position for the NCAA tournament.”
Before the Big Dance, UConn will try to close out its run of perfection in The American with a seventh-straight conference championship, beginning on Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena.