The crowd was fantastic, and the play on the court was at an elite level, but the USF Bulls fell well short against two-time defending national champion #1 UConn in an 88-65 loss on Monday night at the Sun Dome.
There were many encouraging signs for the Bulls, including a marked improvement from the 92-50 drubbing from Huskies six weeks ago in Storrs. Tonight USF won the rebounding battle 38-33, and led 19-8 on the offensive glass. The 65 points the Bulls tallied were also the most by a Huskies opponent since their season-opening loss to Stanford.
Junior guard Courtney Williams was brilliant in a virtuoso 26-point performance. Her 13-26 shooting from the floor belied the difficulty of many of those shots, which were often closely contested, off-balance, and taken at razor-thin acute angles. It also earned high praise from a Basketball Hall of Famer on the opposite bench. "Courtney Williams is as hard to guard as anyone in the country," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said.
"I think we came out with more energy, I think we were more determined," Williams said when compared to her team's performance in Storrs on January 18th. But she still gave great credit to the dynastic opponent. "They’re good. They're always going. You don’t see them looking like they’re taking a moment off."
The Bulls struggled to contain junior forward and reigning National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, who had her way on the low post. Stewart's 29 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, and three assists seemed to come easily and she often looked uncontainable near the rim. The Bulls started 6'1 Alisia Jenkins at center for quickness and maximum transition flexibility, but it gave Stewart and her 7'2 wingspan plenty of opportunities when she caught the ball on the block.
"You watch that first half, we’re playing about as well as we can play," Auriemma said, as the Huskies posted an overwhelming 1.459 points per possession in the first half. "Some teams we play that don’t really have the people or the coaching to keep up with us, but these guys (USF) are really good."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis & Morgan Tuck each added 18 points for UConn, and the Huskies were 36-63 from the floor as a team.
"I thought it was a tale of two halves. You can’t give a team as good as UConn is that many extra possessions," Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. The Bulls outscored UConn 35-34 in the second stanza. "I was pleased with our effort, especially on the glass... (there are) a lot of really good things we can take away from this game leading into the conference tournament."
A Bulls team that often goes 10 deep used only seven players. Williams, freshman guard Laura Ferreria, and Jenkins played all 40 minutes, while guards Shalethia Stringfield & the Bulls lone healthy senior Tamara Taylor both going the 20 minute maximum in the second half.
It's also likely these two teams will meet again next Monday in the American Athletic Conference Tournament final where they'll be the #1 and #2 seeds at the Mohegan Sun. Both teams will then have a week off before the NCAA Tournament field is announced on Selection Monday, March 16th.