The Huskies took care of business at the “neutral site” of Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut by taking down Temple and USF in the quarter and semifinals of the AAC tournament.
“This time of year, you have to play a certain way defensively, and you have to play with a certain amount of energy and urgency,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s March, and you have to have a different mindset when you play in March than when you play in January. Then if you make enough shots, you have a chance to win. We did that.”
No. 1 UConn cruised by No. 8 Temple Saturday afternoon 94-61 behind a 22-point game from Crystal Dangerfield. She tied her career high for made 3-pointers, shooting 6-for-9 from deep.
“We were pushing the ball, and when we pushed the ball the defense was scrambling looking for cutters. When they do that, they leave the 3-point line open,” Dangerfield said. “In the second half we were able to move the ball, and when you move the ball it finds the open person.”
After Olivia Nelson-Ododa got in some foul trouble early, Aubrey Griffin came off of the bench and made an immediate impact. She scored 15 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and came away with three steals and a block.
“She [Griffin] can impact the game defensively and she can impact the game on the glass on the offensive and defensive end, but especially the offensive end,” Auriemma said. “She can give you the opportunity to get another possession.”
Griffin played a very aggressive game, getting eight of her rebounds on the offensive end and getting to the rim often. Most of Griffin’s points came from the free throw line, where she shot 11-for-17.
“She [Griffin] has energy, she’s active and she has the ability to go get the ball and not have the ball come to her. She goes and gets it,” Auriemma said. “She made a huge difference today.”
UConn had six starters in double figures for the first time this season, with Nelson-Ododa, Megan Walker, Christyn Williams and Anna Makurat joining Dangerfield and Griffin.
“Sometimes it just takes a little bit to get going, that’s certainly what happened today,” Auriemma said. “It just took them a little bit of time to get going, but once we got into some kind of rhythm, got some flow and the ball started to move, I thought we played really well.”
The Huskies led just 15-13 after the first quarter, but quickly put that behind them with a 32-15 second period. The 32-point quarter was just one point off of the AAC tournament record, which UConn set in 2017 against Tulsa.
“We shot the ball better as the game went on. As our defense gets better and we get more opportunities, we get more open shots,” Auriemma said. “In the second quarter especially, and for the rest of the game, we were able to get the ball out in transition and get our feet set before the defense got set. We have really good shooters.”
As a team, UConn shot 14-26 from beyond the arc, which was just two shots off of the tournament record, which was also set by the Huskies.
“Teams don’t lose in March. You have to beat their ass,” Auriemma said.
Sunday evening’s game against No. 4 USF was less of an offensive showcase, and more of a defensive masterpiece. UConn won 79-38, holding the Bulls to 21% from the field and forcing 19 turnovers.
UConn held USF to just 22 points through the first three quarters before they emptied the bench for the fourth. Sixteen of those 19 turnovers came in the first half.
“Against a team like USF, you have to work really hard, and these guys worked really hard, to keep them out of their comfort zone,” Auriemma said. “We didn’t shoot the ball particularly great, but that’s what happens. Some days it goes in and some days it doesn’t, but if you play defense the way we played it, you’re giving yourself a chance.”
UConn shot 46% from the field and 35% on their eight made 3-pointers. Though the offense wasn’t unstoppable like it was the day before, the defense fed into the Huskies’ offense Sunday. UConn scored 23 points in transition against USF.
“Everyone’s touching the ball, everyone’s cutting and everyone’s knocking in open shots. That just elevates our game even more for the tournament,” Megan Walker said. “Everyone’s playing well right now, and that’s what we want going into the championship game.”
Walker was UConn’s most consistent scorer through their first two rounds of the tournament. She had 17 points and six rebounds against Temple, then a team-high 21 points and seven rebounds versus USF. On average, that’s good for 19 points in less than 30 minutes per game.
Auriemma reflected a bit on how far his team has come this season, and how that has reflected so far this postseason.
“Have we gotten smarter? Yeah, I think we have. Have we gotten tougher? Maybe. I’m not quite ready to go that far. We need to get tougher physically and mentally,” Auriemma said. “We aren’t built to be like bullies, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be tougher mentally.”
Auriemma is no stranger to tournament season. He knows that even if his team can roll the conference tournament yet again, there is still a lot more that they have to do to compete in the national tournament.
“You can’t work on things in March, like ‘let’s go in the weight room and get stronger’ or ‘let’s do more agility and get quicker.’ You’re not going to do any of that,” Auriemma said. “The only thing that changes in March if you’re any good is you just get a lot smarter and tougher mentally, because you know it’s crunch time right now.”
With just one game remaining in the AAC tournament, UConn will have a chance to exit the conference undefeated in both regular and postseason play since entering for the 2013-14 season.
They will play No. 3 Cincinnati in the finals Monday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Bearcats beat No. 2 UCF in the semifinal game right after UConn’s 57-51. The finals will tip off at 7 p.m.