By John Altavilla, Hartford Courant
UNCASVILLE – There are days when the things UConn does better than just about everyone else in women’s basketball conspires take the oxygen out of an opponent.
Of course, it’s not every day you see it all mesh in the first seven minutes in the semifinals of a conference tournament against a stout rival like Rutgers.
But it did on Sunday. UConn didn’t just take the air out of the Scarlet Knights. They sent them spiraling to the ceiling as if a pin popped them.
If you were a little late getting to your seat at the Mohegan Sun Arena, well, UConn just couldn’t wait. It got things going from the tip by scoring the first 13 points in just three minutes and then cruising to an 83-57 win.
The Huskies (33-0), winners of 39 straight, will play for the first American Athletic Conference title Monday against the winner of Sunday’s other semifinal between Louisville and South Florida.
UConn had five players in double-figures but was led again by sophomore Breanna Stewart. She scored 22 points, her fifth straight 20-plus game and her 18th of the season. She added seven rebounds.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 19 points, shooting 5-for-9 from three-point range. Stefanie Dolson added 15 points and six rebounds. Bria Hartley had 12 points, nine assists and five rebounds. Moriah Jefferson had 10 points and seven assists.
The starting five scored their first 74 points until Brianna Banks made a free throw with 4:04 remaining. That made it 75-49. Saniya Chong then chimed in twice from the line less than a minute later.
Rutgers, which had three players in double-figures, led by Briyona Canty who scored 16 points. Kahleah Copper and Tyler Scaife added 12 each.
There were many moments in the first 10 minutes that illustrated how committed UConn was to this game. Frankly, the Huskies submerged the Scarlet Knights before they had a chance to reach for a buoy. It was fast and frenetic and fatal for Rutgers.
But the best of the best was provided by UConn’s best, Stewart.
Consider that UConn was already leading 30-9 with 9:14 to play in the first half when she sprinted down the floor to catch Betnijah Laney who was headed for a layup. Stewart’s resounding block brought the fans to their feet.
Less than two minutes later, she drained a three-pointer to make the score, 35-9.
Yes, that’s what the AAC player of the year can do.
Stewart scored 15 points in the first half, shooting 6-for-13 with two three-pointers. Dolson added 11 points, shooting 5-for-6. UConn was 20 of 34 from the floor in the half with nine three-pointers, one from Dolson.
Moriah Jefferson got UConn started with a layup just 13 seconds in. And the score was 13-0 before Scaife, the freshman of the year in the AAC, finally put the Scarlet Knights on the board for the first time with 16:41 to play.
Stewart’s layup with 14:24 to play in the half provided the first 20-point lead. Dolson’s three-point shot with 2:14 remaining jumped the lead to 30 at 47-17.
In many ways, the game was quite different than the previous two meetings of the season. Even though UConn won them by a combined 67 points, the path was grittier. Not Sunday. It was smooth.
The idea this might be the final time UConn and Rutgers will play in the regular season for sometime [the Scarlet Knights join the Big Ten next season] was refuted before the game by senior women’s athletic administrators from both schools.
Auriemma has said it would happen. Stringer has said it will happen. And it likely will, beginning next season. The plan is for the teams to play in either Madison Square Garden or Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, pending the approval of Stringer who apparently is still unsure about a neutral site setting.
After that, the programs will play a home-and-away beginning in 2015-16, meaning one more piece of UConn’s conference past will become a piece of its non-conference future.