By John Altavilla, The Hartford Courant
CINCINNATI – When January turns to February, as it did on Saturday, time tends to pass with increased pace for college basketball teams preparing for the madness of March.
Just the other day, UConn coach Geno Auriemma used a timely Olympic metaphor to describe it, saying it was like being on a ski jump. The top of the jump was February. The bottom of the jump was March. The middle was just a big blur down the hill.
So it is, even for the defending national champion. And it began its descent through the last month of play in The American with an uncomplicated 86-29 win over Cincinnati at First Third Arena.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 17 to give her consecutive double-digit performances for the first time since Dec. 22 and Dec. 29 against Duke and California. She was 6 of 11 from the field, 3 of 4 from three-point range.
Even more noteworthy, she took her first free throws (2 of 2) since Jan. 4 at Memphis, eighth games ago. Mosqueda-Lewis, the single-season, three-point leader in program history, had taken only six freebies in her first 14 games and none in 12 of them.
Bria Hartley, in the midst of the great scoring streak in her career, added another 17 points and a career-high six steals. Against Temple last week, she had a career-high 11 assists. Hartley has scored 109 points in her first five games.
Moriah Jefferson added 13 points and five assists. And Breanna Stewart scored 12 with rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals.
And freshman Saniya Chong, scoreless at Temple in 17 minutes, bounced back with 12 points (4 of 6 from three). She hadn’t scored in double-figures since Dec. 5 when she had 10 against Cal Davis
The Huskies (23-0, 10-0) have now won 29 straight, dating to last year’s NCAA Tournament. If they beat SMU at Gampel Pavilion Tuesday, the 30th straight will tie the program record for fifth-longest in history.
The last time the teams played, Dec. 29 at Gampel, the Bearcats held the Huskies to 67 points, 19.3 below its scoring average at the time. Only Baylor (66) has done better this season. The Bearcats had also held opponents 15.2 points below their season average coming into the game. For instance, No. 5 Louisville was limited to 64 in their first meeting, 25.6 points below their scoring pace.
That’s great defense. But nobody plays defense in the nation better than UConn, the leader in points allowed, scoring margin, field goal percentage, blocks and assist-turnover ratio.
And the Bearcats were without their catalyst, senior guard Dayeesha Hollins, who left the program last week after dealing with chronic knee pain and injury.
So UConn’s strategy Saturday was largely dependent on pressuring the Bearcats guards and then watching the offensive flow from there. And flow it did.
UConn had more steals (six) than Cincinnati had field goals (four) in the first 12 minutes. As a result, it also had a 26-9 lead.
The Huskies were coming off one of their great offensive performance in recent memory last week at Temple. Stewart scored a career-high 37 points, making 15 of 19 shots. And Jefferson (12) and Hartley (11) each had double-figure efforts in a performance that featured 31 assists on 39 baskets.
In its previous two games, the Huskies had assisted on 56 of 69 baskets (81.2 percent). That’s passing about as fancy as can be.
UConn assisted on six of its first seven field goals, but soon it was the defense that took control. The Bearcats actually led twice in the first 2:50; 3-1 for 22 seconds and 5-3 for 15 seconds.
After Jeanise Randolph scored with to make it 17-9 with 12:23 to play in the first half, the air totally drained from Cincinnati’s offensive balloon. And it spiraled wildly out of control.
The Huskies outscored Cincinnati 22-0 over the next 11:38 while the Bearcats were 0 of 10 with 11 of their 15 first-half turnovers. Both Hartley (12) and Jefferson (11) had hit double-figure scoring by the half with Hartley adding five steals, enough for her season-high.
Hartley scored 10 points in the 22-0 run and the Huskies were 16 of 33 from the field, 6 of 14 from three.
Things did not improve after halftime. The Bearcats first field goal in the second half came with 16:26 to play by Bianca Quisenberry. That made the score, 51-13. By that time, UConn had more personal fouls (seven) than the Bearcats had field goals (six).