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UConn completes program's eighth perfect regular season

Storrs — UConn coach Geno Auriemma has, you know, a few credentials.

So when Auriemma calls a quarter of basketball “amazing,” especially when it's a quarter played by his own team, of which he is often critical, it must be something special.

That described the third quarter Monday night for the top-ranked UConn women's basketball team. The Huskies, trailing at halftime for the first time since last year's NCAA tournament, stormed from the locker room with a 32-point quarter to come back against No. 20 South Florida.

UConn won 79-59 to finish the regular season unbeaten for the eighth time in program history and pick up its 66th straight victory.

The Huskies (29-0, 18-0) have never lost a game in three seasons in the American Athletic Conference entering this weekend's league tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena, which will feature UConn as the No. 1 seed and South Florida as the No. 2.

“It's supposed to be March because this is a leap year,” said UConn senior Breanna Stewart, who scored her 2,500th career point during the game. “That's the type of game you play in March. … The way we came out in the second half, they weren't ready for that.”

Stewart, who was 3-for-12 in the first half for seven points, finished with 27 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and a steal in 37 minutes. She was 10-for-13 in the second half, including 16 points in the third quarter.

UConn trailed 25-24 at halftime before Stewart scored the first basket of the third quarter to put the Huskies ahead for good. UConn switched to a zone defense to try to slow down South Florida's Courtney Williams (21 points, 15 in the first half).

The Huskies also ratcheted up their offense.

The crowd of 9,030 at Gampel Pavilion roared when Kia Nurse (15 points, 4 3-pointers) hit a 3 on a kick-out from Moriah Jefferson to finish a fast break, making it 42-32. The decibel level went to deafening when Stewart finished at the rim, followed by a steal from Jefferson that came on a simple South Florida handoff in the backcourt.

And even Auriemma, the 10-time national champion, shrugged his shoulders when Stewart finished the quarter by getting an offensive rebound and putting it back from under the basket, facing the court. That gave the Huskies a 56-39 lead headed to the final 10 minutes.

“When Stewie starts doing stuff like that, all you can do is shake your head. It is what it is,” Auriemma said.

Auriemma said he felt like Stewart had been pressing recently, also shooting poorly in the first half of Saturday's victory over Tulane. He said that the Huskies slowed things down in the second half and made sure they got the ball to Stewart in better spots.

“We just went back to it and back to it and back to it,” Auriemma said. “… When we have to play great, we do.”

In addition to 15 points from Nurse, Jefferson and Morgan Tuck had 11 each and Tuck added eight rebounds and five assists.

South Florida (21-8, 14-4) led 19-15 after one quarter after Williams scored nine straight points for the Bulls. South Florida was then able to maintain the lead through the second quarter, as well, holding UConn to nine points.

“They just exposed us,” South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said of the start of the third quarter. “I know our guys are disappointed because when you are up at the half against the No. 1 team in the country then you come out and play as poorly as we did in the first three minutes … I think we have to go back and think about what we need to fix for next Monday night (should the teams meet in the AAC final).”

UConn will play in the AAC quarterfinals at 2 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Friday's game between No. 8 East Carolina (12-18) and No. 9 Cincinnati (8-21). South Florida plays in the 6 p.m. game against the winner of No. 7 SMU (12-17) and No. 10 UCF (7-22).

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Twitter: @vickieattheday

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