Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Top-Ranked UConn Still Owns The American After Beating USF 70-54 for Fifth Championship

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - It was 24 hours ago in the middle of top-ranked Connecticut’s 30-0 run, which became part of a 26-0 second quarter, a 43-5 halftime lead, and ultimately a 75-21 victory against fourth-seeded Cincinnati in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference that a note got sent to Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, whose team was eliminated on Sunday here in the Mohegan Sun Arena.

During the regular season her Owls fell twice to the Huskies by scores of 113-57 at home in Philadelphia and 106-45 in Hartford, Conn.

Cardoza and Cincinnati’s Jamelle Elliott, a former UConn standout whose Bearcats had their best season (19-12) since 2003, were both longtime assistants under Huskies Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma.

“Now we’re really confused as to who Geno really liked better — you or Jamelle,” the note said in jest.

A quick response came, saying, “he never lets up against us and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Likewise, on Tuesday night, after second-seeded and 19th-ranked USF fell in the championship for the fourth straight year to Connecticut, this time, 70-54, as the Huskies (32-0) continued the monopoly with what is now all five of the American tournament trophies and a perfect 101-0 record against all comers in the new configuration after the breakup of the old Big East, Jose Fernandez was not the least bit frustrated over his South Floridians (26-7) being stopped again by the same blockade.

“For us, it’s great to have UConn in this league, we embrace it,” he said. “Us coaches want to coach against the best and our players want to play against the best.

“I think our program gets judged on the three times we play Connecticut and not enough on the body of work that we did in November and December,” he continued.

“Getting to this championship game is tough and we have done it four straight years. UConn is very good for this league. We are trying to catch the best team in the country and for us, we embrace it, we enjoy it. We have not beaten them yet, but I think this is what (his players) strive to work every day.”

Connecticut is now 26-0 against the Bulls and 23-5 in conference finals, including time in the Big East.

Similarly, after the rout on Monday, Elliott arrived at the presser, and saluted her former boss and praised all that Cincinnati had accomplished.

“I know Coach Auriemma well,” she said. “He is gearing his guys up to go deep into the NCAA tournament (30th straight appearance) and they prepared well. I haven’t seen them come out as aggressive as they did today.

“Hitting on all cylinders from a defensive end. It was tough for us to even get a shot off. I am proud of the way my team played. They fought hard all the way to the finish.

“I told them to wake up the nightmare is over,” Elliott related with an eye to the Women’s NIT. “It’s a new day, hopefully another season will be coming our way. It’s in the hands of the committee now. Hopefully, we did enough the last six or seven games of the conference. I believe we are trending in the right direction.”

And on the Connecticut side, the trend keeps getting gaudier after a decade of 10 straight Final Four appearances, heading to the dance with a history of nine unbeaten records at this stage, and of course looking for championship No. 12 that seemed in the Huskies’ sights a year ago until Morgan William’s buzzer beater in overtime in the national semifinals in Dallas gave Mississippi State one of the great upsets as the Bulldogs brought an end to the Huskies’ historic 111-game win streak.

After a season that still delivers wear and tear, such as UConn’s Gabby Williams sitting out the Cincinnati game due to a nagging hip problem— her first time sidelined, Auriemma is looking at almost a two-week break for his team to get healthy and regrouped before the first two rounds, which will be at home in Storrs on campus.

Likely to survive that, comes a following weekend trip to the regionals in Albany, N.Y., which leads to the Women’s Final Four at the end of the month in Columbus, Ohio, at Nationwide Arena.

The blueprints showing this year’s construction project for UConn to build to another title will be learned on Monday night when ESPN at 7 p.m. televises the complete 64-team field to reveal the 32 at-large entries and of course the matchups and who has to deal the Huskies and the Huskies have to deal in that quad of the bracket.

UConn dealt well in this one Tuesday night as Williams shrugged off her discomfort to score 19 points, grab seven rebounds, dish six assists, block a shot and snare five steals in 32 minutes of the 40-minute game.

“I made the decision when I woke this morning,” she said about returning to active duty. “I knew that if I was going to make that decision, I would have to attack it like any other game. I didn’t want to show I was only halfway there. If I was going to play, I was going to play like I always do.”

Lauding her play, Auriemma said, “When you have someone like Gabby and she plays like she did tonight, it is fun to watch, but they don’t have anyone who can compensate for that and handle what she was doing tonight.

“She got some help, but I don’t think without her especially coming off last night there is no way we would win.”

Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson each had 12 points, while Azurá Stevens, a transfer from Duke who became eligible this season, had 13 points, seven rebounds, three blocked shots, and a steal coming off the bench, which earned her being named the most outstanding performer for the tournament.

Of course that immediately sent everyone to the record books to see if any other UConn reserve had been named an MOP.

Auriemma, however, doesn’t see Stevens as a reinforcement.

“We see her the same as anyone in the else in the starting lineup. We just chose to start a smaller lineup. We have a starting six,” he said explaining that if Stevens is coming off the bench, it is “to give a different look. She is a difference maker in games.”

USF’s prolific scorer Kitija Laksa had 26 points and shot 5-for-12 on three-point attempts. Maria Jespersen had nine points and nine rebounds.

Williams and Collier joined Kia Nurse and Samuelson as the only quartet of active players on the Huskies in the same season to reach 1,500 points the same season.

UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield, Samuelson and Williams along with the USF duo of Laksa and Jespersen made the all-tournament team.