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    UConn Women's Basketball
    Monday, January 30, 2023

    Defense leads UConn women back to AAC tourney final

    UConn's Crystal Dangerfield (5) makes the steal as she and Megan Walker, right, pressure USF's Luize Septe (14) in American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal action on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Mohegan — It was a far better start for UConn than the last time it met South Florida, less than a week ago in Tampa.

    UConn coach Geno Auriemma liked it so much, in fact, he left the entire starting lineup on the floor for the whole first half as the Huskies rolled to an 81-45 victory Sunday in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament before 5,872 fans at Mohegan Sun Arena.

    "I don't think in the flow of the game we recognize it," UConn junior guard Crystal Dangerfield said of the extended playing time for the other players in the absence this weekend of injured All-American Katie Lou Samuelson. "We come in at halftime and see who still has their (warmup) shirt on."

    "It's not easy on them," Auriemma said. "They have to play their butts off and not get in foul trouble. (Monday's championship game) is going to be tough. I'm hopeful that we get contributions from everybody like we did today."

    Sophomore Megan Walker finished with 24 points and seven rebounds and senior Napheesa Collier, named Friday as the AAC Player of the Year, had 23 points and 12 rebounds. Dangerfield had 11 points and four assists and Christyn Williams 10 points for top-seeded UConn, which reached the 30-win plateau for the 14th straight season.

    The Huskies (30-2) will meet No. 2 Central Florida in the championship game at 7 p.m. Monday (ESPN2) at Mohegan Sun, with UConn looking for its sixth straight league tournament title. Central Florida beat No. 3 Cincinnati 66-58.

    UConn led South Florida 41-15 at halftime, finishing with an offensive rebound and a jump shot from the right corner by Williams, flipping the scenario from last Monday's game in which the Bulls led 29-25 at halftime. UConn struggled to win that game 57-47, its first without Samuelson after she suffered back spasms in the Huskies' Senior Day win over Houston.

    In Saturday's 92-65 quarterfinal win over East Carolina, Auriemma called UConn's defense "really, really, really poor," especially in the first half when the Huskies led 46-39.

    But this time the defensive pressure from the Huskies was immediate, as they leapt to a 19-5 lead after the first quarter and finished the game with 22 points off turnovers to topple South Florida (18-15), which had been to the last four straight league championship games.

    "Last time we played (South Florida), our first half wasn't good. We weren't aggressive enough," Williams said. "(Today), our press was amazing. We wanted to carry over from the second half yesterday."

    "Obviously, our approach today was a little bit different than last Monday," Auriemma said. "What a big difference from a week ago. Our defense kind of set the tone for everything that happened the rest of the game. That created a lot of great opportunities for us at the other end. ... We got a good handle on it playing them just last week."

    Auriemma finally began subbing in the third quarter, although Collier's first break lasted all of 43 seconds. The Huskies had a 13-point run in the third capped by a 3-pointer from Walker, who hit four of them, to lead 56-19.

    Collier set two league tournament records in the game, becoming the all-time leading scorer in tournament history with 176 points and the AAC's record-holder with 70 made field goals in tournament play.

    UConn shot 53.3 percent for the game (32-for-60) and 47.1 percent from 3-point range (8-for-17).

    "I thought UConn was very, very good tonight," South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said. "They played at a different pace than we did and they shot the ball extremely well."

    "We knew we had to handle business today," Collier said. "... It's obviously really hard playing without Lou. Life has to go on. We have still have to be able to function. Hopefully we'll have her back soon."

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

    UConn's Mikayla Coombs (4) blocks a shot attempt by USF's Janeta Rozentale (22) as Kyla Irwin (25) helps on defense in American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal action on Sunday atMohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    UConn's Olivia Nelson-Ododa drives on USF's Alyssa Rader in American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal action on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson, far left, leads teammates Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and Christyn Williams, in celebrating as reserve Molly Bent hits a three pointer against USF in American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal action on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    UConn vs. UCF

    AAC tournament championship

    No. 1 UConn vs. No. 2 Central Florida

    Location: Mohegan Sun Arena

    Tip: 7 p.m. (ESPN2).

    Records: Central Florida 26-5 overall; UConn 30-2.

    Last game: Central Florida beat No. 3 Cincinnati 66-58 in the semifinals Sunday; UConn beat No. 5 South Florida 81-45 in the semifinals Sunday.

    Probable starters: Central Florida, 5-7 G Kay Kay Wright (18.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.9 spg), 6-0 F Nyala Shuler (4.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.3 apg), 5-11 G Sydnee McDonald (7.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.1 apg), 5-11 F Tolulope Omokore (2.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg), 5-8 G Jamesha Paul (4.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg).

    UConn, 6-1 F Megan Walker (12.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg), 6-4 F Olivia Nelson-Ododa (4.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg), 6-2 F Napheesa Collier (20.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg), 5-5 G Crystal Dangerfield (13.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.1 apg, 1.7 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (10.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg).

    Noteworthy: While playing three games in three days without injured senior All-American Katie Lou Samuelson isn't exactly UConn coach Geno Auriemma's ideal scenario, he's been marveling at how much the other players have been accomplishing without her on the floor. The Huskies scored 92 points Saturday and 81 more Sunday, making the road to their sixth straight league tournament final a relatively easy one. The coach has spoken, especially, of 6-foot-4 freshman forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who had not started a game prior to this week. Ododa had 17 rebounds in Saturday's victory over East Carolina. "Not having Lou is giving her the opportunity to play a ton of minutes," Auriemma said. "That's going to be invaluable in the NCAA tournament. When Lou comes back, I think we're a better team than when Lou got hurt." ... UConn reached the 30-win mark with Sunday's win over South Florida, making it 14 straight seasons the Huskies have hit that mark. "Sometimes I think they're making (those stats) up because they can't be real," Auriemma said. "If you're not careful, all you remember is the latest failure. Sometimes you need to be reminded of what you just reminded me of (the 30 wins)." ... UConn had zero bench points against USF through three quarters, finishing with six. ... UConn met UCF twice during the regular season, winning 93-57 at home on Jan. 27 and 78-41 in Orlando on Feb. 17. ... UConn is now 119-0 all-time against AAC opponents. ... Quotable: Auriemma, ending his press conference Sunday: "We played great defense and we shot the ball great. Let's go eat." ... UCF and Cincinnati were tied 34-34 at halftime. Kay Kay Wright led the Knights to the win with 21 points and 6-foot-3 reserve forward Masseny Kaba added 13.

    — Vickie Fulkerson

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