It is often said that by this time of the year freshmen no longer play like freshmen. By March, their game, in most cases, has been elevated to the next level of their collegiate playing career. Under the spotlight of a high profile program this growth is expected right in time for a post-season run.
This old basketball adage is alive and well at Connecticut, where UConn’s three freshmen, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, combined for 35 of the Huskies 76 points as the Geno Auriemma’s squad parlayed a nine point half time lead into a 20 point lead with fourteen minutes to go coasting to a 76-50 win over the fouth-seeded Maryland Terrapins (26-8) in the Sweet 16 Regional Semi-Final at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport Saturday afternoon. With the win UConn (32-4) will face second-seeded and seventh ranked (AP) Kentucky, 69-62 winners over sixth-seeded Delaware, Monday night in Bridgeport in the Elite 8 with the winner moving onto the Final Four in New Orleans next weekend.
Said Auriemma, “Our freshmen were great today. That’s kind of the story of the game. Their first Regional game. The three of them, I think were like 16-28 from the floor, one turnover among the three of them. They were the key to the game today.”
Maryland, who had lost to UConn earlier this season, came out of the gate determined to make a game of it. After a Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (17 pts, 7 rbs) jumper opened the scoring the lead changed hands five consecutive times followed by a tie and another lead change. Then Connecticut went to work. With the Huskies trailing 10-8 with just over fifteen to play UConn hit the Terps with a 27-11 run taking their biggest lead of the half 35-21 with 56 ticks left on the clock. Then the pendulum swung back the other way. Kelly Faris (8 pts, 5 rbs, 3 assts) took a high post hand-off driving down the right of the lane for an apparent lay-up drawing what looked like a hard foul, but the call never came. Aurienma stormed out to half-court before Assistant Coach Chris Dailey reined him in, only to have Auriemma give the officiating crew an earful as they passed him by drawing an immediate bench technical. Alyssa Thomas (13 pts, 9 rbs) hit one of two from the charity stripe and Tianna Hawkins (11 pts, 8 rbs) hit a jumper with 4 seconds left trimming UConn’s lead to 35-26 giving Maryland some momentum going into the half.
Said Auriemma on the technical, “That was the dumb(explicative) in me. I cost our team four points. At this stage of my lfe I should be way past that.”
Whatever positives Maryland had coming out of the locker room vanished in the first three minutes as UConn hit the Terps with a 9-0 run, taking an eighteen point lead with the half barely three minutes old. A Tuck (8 pts) baby hook four minutes later pushed the lead to twenty where it ebbed and flowed around that mark before a couple late hoops accounted for the final margin of victory.
“Connecticut makes great teams look really bad”, said Maryland Head Coach Brenda Frese, ”And obviously you saw that on display today. I thought they had tremendous firepower. Any time they were able to get an open look, even late in the shot clock, they were able to stick it and bury it in the basket. We really struggled against their defense.”
Stewart (17 pts, 8 rbs) has been a constant all year, but it was the spark that Jefferson (10 pts, 3 assts) and Tuck brought off the bench that opened many eyes Saturday afternoon. Tuck provided some much needed strength up front to counter the physicality of the Maryland squad, especially when Husky nation had a major scare after Stefanie Dolson (9 pts, 10 rbs) went crashing to floor holding her knee. Much of the capacity crowd was silent for those few tense moments before Dolson was able to get up under her own power and walk to the UConn bench.
Jefferson was outstanding running UConn’s offense and doing a nice job of knowing when to penetrate and when to swing the ball, but her highlight came on the defensive end. Thomas, with seven inch advantage on the UConn guard, made a spin in the lane, but Jefferson in perfect anticipation of the move, got a hand on top of the ball for the tie-up.
“I though our defense was really, really good today.”, said Auriemma, “For the most part we did exactly what we talked about doing (Defensively). We held our own on the backboard. Offensively we made enough plays and enough shots at the right times.”
A win Monday will send UConn to its’ sixth straight Final Four and fourteenth overall.
On the freshman contribution Mosqueda-Lewis said, “As long as (The Freshmen) keep playing like that and they’re consistent, this teams going to be successful.”
Freshmen no more.
Kentucky 69, Delaware 62
In the double-header opener Saturday in Bridgeport the second-seeded and seventh ranked (AP) Wildcats staved off a furious rally by sixth seeded Delaware (32-4) as Kentucky advanced to its’ second straight Elite 8.
Kentucky (30-5) seemed to have the game well in hand for the first 20 minutes, combining defensive tenacity and tenacious rebounding while holding Delaware to eight field goals, taking a 41-27 lead into the half.
Elena Delle Donne scored 16 of her game high 33 in the second in including a jumper with just under three to play to pull Delaware within two, 62-60. But Kastine Evans (8 pts) answered with what was a back breaking three effectively ending Delaware’s Elite 8 hopes.
Jennifer O’Neill led the Wildcats with 19 points and A’dia Mathies added 16, scoring the 2,000th point of her career in the process.