UConn women win fifth straight AAC tourney title
Mohegan — It was when Gabby Williams woke up Tuesday morning that she decided she could play. And since she was playing, despite a sore left hip that has plagued her throughout this season for the unbeaten UConn women's basketball team, she wasn't about to just give a fraction of her best effort.
“When you have somebody like Gabby and she plays the way she played tonight, one, it was fun to watch,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Two, they don't have anyone on their team that can compensate for that.
“There were a couple things she did today where I looked back at the other coaches and gave kind of a 'wow'. … Without her, especially coming off last night, there's no way we could win.”
The day after tweaking the hip in a win Sunday over Tulane, Williams sat out the first game of her career Monday against Cincinnati, having played in the previous 147.
On Tuesday, Williams finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists, five steals and a blocked shots in 32 minutes, displaying a grace that belied her hobbled hip, as top-seeded UConn held off a fourth-quarter charge by No. 2 South Florida to win its fifth straight American Athletic Conference tournament championship 70-54 before 7,501 fans at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Williams, who was 5-for-5 for 11 points, four rebounds and four assists at halftime, earned all-tournament honors along with UConn teammates Crystal Dangerfield and Katie Lou Samuelson and South Florida's Maria Jesperson and Kitija Laksa.
UConn's Azura Stevens, the sixth man for the 32-0 Huskies, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Stevens started in place of Williams in the semifinals and finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots before finishing the championship game with 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
Auriemma called Williams, the senior All-American forward, “possibly the most single impactful person in the country.”
Williams the 5-foot-11 former Olympic high jump hopeful, started the scoring for UConn, out ahead on the fast break. She was fouled once again on the front of the break a few moments later, skidding on the floor into a line of South Florida cheerleaders, and with 1 minute, 50 seconds left in the quarter, she drove the lane, cradling the ball in one arm, for a layup.
She played all 10 minutes of the first quarter, at which point UConn led 21-17.
At different points, Williams came out of the game for a break and headed down the tunnel to the arena's back hallway to keep moving.
She was knocked to the floor again on a fallaway jump shot in the fourth quarter and left the game shortly thereafter, but returned to the game as South Florida's Laksa was heating up with 16 fourth-quarter points.
“I knew that if I was going to make the decision to play, I would have to go out there and attack it. I didn't want to show I'm halfway there,” Williams said. “I was going to play like I always do.”
“The rebounding and stuff has gotten kind of commonplace,” Auriemma said of Williams. “But how many times has there been a player that rebounds like that and then takes the ball away from you like a guard … she made a couple passes that were spectacular.”
UConn defeated South Florida twice during the regular season, Jan. 6 at South Florida (100-49) and Feb. 26 at Gampel Pavilion (82-53).
It was the fourth straight season the Huskies have beaten the Bulls (26-7), ranked 19th in the country, in the AAC title game. Last season UConn won the championship 100-44, behind a 40-point effort from Samuelson.
South Florida coach Jose Fernandez, however, doesn't appear flustered by the chase of UConn.
“Us coaches want to coach against the best. The players want to play against the best,” Fernandez said. “UConn's good for this league. We're trying to catch the best team in the country. For us, we embrace it, we enjoy it.”
In addition to Williams and Stevens, Napheesa Collier and Samuelson had 12 points each for the Huskies.
Laksa had 26 points for South Florida, hitting five 3-point field goals, three in the fourth quarter. The Bulls trailed by as many as 23 when Stevens finished a three-point play for UConn with 29.8 seconds left in the third quarter, giving UConn a 55-32 lead.
Laksa answered with a 3-pointer right away in the fourth and coaxed a bank shot to fall, as well as hitting another 3 to quickly cut into the Huskies' lead.
“I knew and was waiting for the game to play out exactly the way it played out,” said Auriemma, whose team will enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten for the ninth time in program history. “There was not going to be any repeat of the first two times (this season).”
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