American Athletic Conference Final: Another title for Auriemma, another trophy for Stewart

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – South Florida certainly seems to have the recipe for getting off to fast starts against UConn. For the second straight game, the Bulls jumped out to an early lead against the number one ranked Huskies. Unfortunately for them, there are four quarters to a game. After trailing 14-13 after the first quarter, UConn outscored South Florida 64-37 the rest of the way to win the American Athletic Conference championship game 77-51 at Mohegan Sun Arena.

UConn won its third consecutive conference title, and its second in a row over South Florida in the title game. They were exceptional defensively and efficient offensively. UConn finished with 107 made field goals on 185 attempts (57.8 percent) in the tournament.

Senior Breanna Stewart averaged over 15 points per game for the tournament and was voted Most Outstanding Player. She scored 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting and blocking seven shots in tonight’s game. Stewart was one of four Huskies in double figures, joined by Katie Lou Samuelson with 13, Moriah Jefferson with 12 and Morgan Tuck with 11. All three of those Huskies were voted onto the All-Tournament team.

While the Huskies shot an impressive 58 percent for the game, it was their stifling defense that led the way.

“We just want to give ourselves a chance to win and we do when we play defense the way we played,” Auriemma said. “We are always going to have a chance to win, but how much we win by depends on how many shots go in. It starts on the defensive end and carries over to the offensive end.”

In particular the defense of Jefferson and Gabby Williams on South Florida star guard Courtney Williams was exceptional. Williams, an All-Tournament team selection along with teammate Shaleth Stringfield, was the tournament’s leading scorer and scored 16 points tonight, but needed 18 shots to get it noted Auriemma. Williams finished with 67 points in three games, averaging 22.3 points per game and breaking Stewart’s record of 64 points, set in the 2014 tournament.

South Florida coach Jose Fernandez noted part of the difficulty in playing against UConn is the amount of players with equivalent size.

“They can switch one through five,” Fernandez said. “You have Stewart, Tuck, and Katie Lou. They’re tall with a wide wingspan and they’re athletic. It’s tough, they can really challenge shots.”

Laura Ferreira and Alisia Jenkins scored 12 points each for South Florida, while Stringfield had six points, six rebounds, and five assists. While UConn will most certainly be the number one seed in the NCAA tournament, South Florida will gain an entry but seeding is a question for the Bulls.

“I think our team has really been tested this year,” Fernandez said. “Besides playing them (UConn) three times, we played Baylor. We were their closest win. They beat us by three and we had a shot at the buzzer. Their (Big 12 conference) third place team Oklahoma State, we beat at home. We played Louisville on the road, St. John’s, Chattanooga won their league, Penn State. We have been tested all year. UConn is a different test that’s for sure.”

Auriemma also pushed a good seeding for the Bulls, and also mentioned that he felt Temple, who finished third in the conference, should get in. He also said losing to his team should not make a difference.

“If you don’t have bad losses it doesn’t hurt you,” Auriemma said. “Losing to us doesn’t affect their seeding one bit. If you’re telling me there are 16 other teams better than South Florida, I want to play all of them. Temple got hurt by a couple games they played early. I think they should get in but it’s a weird year.”

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