Huskies obliterate Rutgers in semifinal
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — A day before the AAC Tournament semis, Geno Auriemma gave high praise to the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s dynamic backcourt.
Connecticut’s Hall of Fame head coach admitted this year’s Scarlet Knights are difficult to guard and “really good” in transition. All-AAC First-Team selection Kahleah Copper and AAC Freshman of the Year winner Tyler Scaife supported it with 40 points in Rutgers’ quarterfinals win Saturday against Southern Methodist.
But when the teams met for a third time this season at Mohegan Sun Arena, none of it mattered.
Three minutes into yesterday’s semifinal, it was 13-0, Huskies, courtesy of two layups and three consecutive 3-pointers. Less than four minutes later, every Connecticut starter was on the board.
No. 1 UConn (33-0) made 51 percent of its shots and blitzed No. 24 Rutgers (22-9) off the floor for a third time, 83-57, to remain undefeated entering tonight’s conference title game.
“You get into the boxing ring, and they look to knock you out the first 10 minutes,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “I think probably the secret is to be in the eye of the storm and still maintain composure, still be calm and not abandon ship so to speak, and we clearly did that.”
The Huskies’ length and size inside forced off-balanced, timid jumpers, once again shutting down Rutgers’ half-court offense predicated on attacking the basket and making foul shots.
Copper, who shot free throws 8-for-9 against Southern Methodist, could not get to the line until 12:21 remained in the first half. She finished with no assists, three turnovers and just 4-for-15 field goal shooting for 12 points.
The sophomore wing bricked shots from all around the perimeter before finally converting a jumper from the elbow with 5:05 left in the first half to make it a 42-15 UConn lead.
Arguably the Knights’ most important offensive player, a visibly frustrated Copper often tried to force her way through the Huskies’ interior with frenetic dribbling along the baseline.
“I knew that once I attacked, my guard had to slide up and we had to attack the gaps and kick it out,” Copper said. “[The Huskies are] really long, and as long as we kept getting deeper into the paint, they were all closing on us like a cup. That was expected, the coaches prepared us for all that. It was difficult.”
Scaife scooped in the Knights’ first bucket on a left-handed layup 3:19 in, but like Copper, stroked an inconsistent jumper and totaled just 12 points.
Even the times Rutgers had a chance to open up its trademark transition game usually backfired.
After UConn’s quick burst exploded into a 30-9 cushion 10 minutes in, junior wing Betnijah Laney grabbed a bad pass from guard Moriah Jefferson with a wide-open floor ahead of her.
Using long strides, 6-foot-4 forward Breanna Stewart somehow raced back and swatted Laney’s layup attempt at the last moment.
Stewart promptly came back down the floor and nailed a 3-pointer to make it 33-9 and all momentum with UConn. She led all scorers with 22 points.
“Geno does a masterful job of encouraging his players to be as intense on the offensive side as they are on the defensive side,” Stringer said. “That’s clearly what makes a great team.”
UConn was so dominant defensively that Rutgers failed to hit two straight buckets in the game until 19:16 remained in the second half.
As 6-foot-5 center Stefanie Dolson and Stewart clogged the lane with five blocks, the Huskies dared Rutgers to beat them from the outside.
The Knights, who made only 43 3-pointers all season, refused to attempt a single deep ball.
“If you can’t hit 3-point shots, why would you take them?” Stringer said. “Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, but 99 percent of the time, we don’t. When I get some 3-point shooters next year, we will do that.”
The Huskies, meanwhile, made 13-for-22 in that department, leaving few answers for Rutgers’ 2-3 zone.
For the third straight time this season, UConn completely dominated in every facet against Rutgers. All of its starters finished in double figures.
“That entire first 20 minutes was probably as good of basketball as I can hope for, especially in the postseason,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes the other team has something to do with it. Today, I don’t think there was anything Rutgers could do about it.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.