UConn finds its footing in second half and routs East Carolina
Mohegan — It was the first day of the "everyone needs to do a little bit more" era, with the UConn women's basketball team minus senior All-American Katie Lou Samuelson for this weekend's American Athletic Conference tournament due to injury.
As long as UConn coach Geno Auriemma was talking about offense when he issued that edict to his team earlier this week, Saturday's outcome was perfect.
The top-seeded Huskies, especially senior forward Napheesa Collier, who finished with 37 points, scored in droves in a 92-65 victory over No. 8 East Carolina in the AAC quarterfinals before a crowd of 5,939 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
"This is not one of our better defensive teams by any stretch of the imagination," Auriemma said. "We can't afford to make any mistakes. We can't afford to get in foul trouble. Today we did all those things. The first half was a really, really, really poor defensive effort. That's why I looked the way I looked.
"We played fast on offense. We played bad on defense. We saved all our energy for running up the floor on offense."
But man, the offense, which was tasked with making up for Samuelson's missing 18.9 points per game.
The Huskies (29-2) led 46-39 at halftime behind 29 points from Collier and tacked on 46 more in the second half when freshman Christyn Williams scored all 16 of her points, as UConn advanced to Sunday's semifinal against No. 5 South Florida (4 p.m., ESPN2).
Collier, named the AAC Player of the Year on Friday, finished two points shy of her career high with 37 and added 13 rebounds. Williams and Crystal Dangerfield had 16 points and six assists each and Megan Walker had 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the 6-foot-4 freshman who started her first career game earlier in the week in the Huskies' regular-season finale at South Florida, finished with 17 rebounds and five blocked shots, four in the third quarter, tying the tournament record for rebounds in a game.
"Obviously, things don't run as smoothly when you take somebody like Lou out of the lineup," Auriemma said. "A lot of times you take somebody out of the lineup, you take away a person who did one thing. We took out our second-best rebounder; we took out our best shooter; we took out a really good passer; we took out another long body in our zone. All of the sudden, things change.
"We still scored 92 points without Lou. That's a good sign."
In the first half, Dangerfield said she believes the Huskies relied on Collier too much. But Collier also wasn't missing.
She scored six straight points near the end of the first quarter, getting a steal and going the length of the floor for what would finish as a three-point play to give the Huskies their biggest lead of the game to that point at 22-13.
UConn went on an 11-point run to start the second quarter, with Collier scoring nine straight during that span with another three-point play. She scored 14 straight UConn points overall in the second quarter, hitting a 3-pointer that made it 40-30.
Collier, whom Auriemma referred to as "head and shoulders above everybody else," shot 15-for-20, plus 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
"I think our mindset, it's supposed to change when the tournament starts," Collier said. "It's taking us a while to get rolling."
The freshmen helped get things rolling in the second half, Nelson-Ododa making things more difficult for ECU and Williams driving to the basket over and over with surprising ease, including a one-handed finish on a layup toward the game's conclusion.
UConn scored the final nine points, including a 3-pointer by Molly Bent.
"I thought Olivia had the kind of game she needs to have," Auriemma said. "She was the presence we need to have in there. She played good defense, rebounded the ball, blocked shots, that's really five turnovers (via blocked shots), five steals. Her offense is going to come around and when it does, she's going to be a pretty special player."
Lashonda Monk finished with 20 points for ECU (16-15) and Alex Frazier had 13.
UConn outrebounded the Pirates 51-26, with the Huskies accumulating the second-highest total in tournament history.
Samuelson injured her back in last Saturday's Senior Day win over Houston at Gampel Pavilion and will miss the tournament, it was announced Friday.
AAC TOURNAMENT SEMIFINAL
No. 1 UConn vs. No. 5 South Florida
Location: Mohegan Sun Arena
Tip: 4 p.m. (ESPN2)
Records: South Florida 18-14 overall; UConn 29-2.
Last game: South Florida beat No. 4 Houston 72-55 in the quarterfinals Saturday; UConn beat No. 8 ECU 92-65 in the quarterfinals Saturday.
Probable starters: South Florida, 5-11 F Luize Septe (5.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.9 apg), 6-1 F Tamara Henshaw (6.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.2 apg), 6-2 C Shae Leverett (7.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg), 5-9 G Enna Pehadzic (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), 5-8 G Elisa Pinzan (3.7 ppg, 3.4 apg).
UConn, 6-1 F Megan Walker (11.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg), 6-4 F Olivia Nelson-Ododa (4.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg), 6-2 F Napheesa Collier (20.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg), 5-5 G Crystal Dangerfield (13.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.6 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (10.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
Noteworthy: UConn and South Florida have met the last four seasons in the AAC tournament championship, but this has been a difficult season for South Florida in terms of injuries. The Bulls lost Kitija Laksa (knee), Beatriz Jordao (leg) and Silvia Serrat (knee) for the season and have also been without Laura Ferreira (illness) and Sydni Harvey (concussion protocol) for stretches. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Friday, upon receiving the league's Coach of the Year honor, that he believes Fernandez deserved consideration. "I do think Jose did a phenomenal job with what he had to endure, him and his team. And I told him so after our game Monday night," Auriemma said. "He did an exceptional job. I don’t know that I could've done this year what he did with his group.” That said, Fernandez is hoping to make it to a fifth straight tournament final, which he would do with a win over UConn. "We expect to play for a championship," Fernandez said Saturday. "We expect to play on Monday night. It's just a different route to Monday night this time. We are on the other side of the bracket. We have never faced UConn in the semifinal." ... The teams ended the regular season against each other Monday night in Tampa with UConn coming away with a 57-47 victory. South Florida led the game, UConn's first playing without injured All-American Katie Lou Samuelson in the lineup, 29-25 at halftime. Crystal Dangerfield led UConn with 17 points and nine assists in that game and Dangerfield, Napheesa Collier and Megan Walker each played 40 minutes. Auriemma called South Florida's tempo "slower than ever" without its missing stars and he expects not much to change this time. "They're really good at getting you to play at their pace," Auriemma said. "You've got to figure out a way to speed them up." ... UConn won its fifth straight AAC tournament title last year by beating South Florida 70-54. Huskies sixth man Azura Stevens was named Most Outstanding Player. ... The Huskies are 118-0 all-time in the AAC since the league's inception.
— Vickie Fulkerson
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