The world order in Connecticut seemed slightly amiss for the 2012 tournament semifinal and final games, given that the Huskies had lost back-to-back home games in recent weeks to the tournament’s top two seeds, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 St. John’s.
Normalcy for the Huskies returned on Tuesday night after the Huskies avenged both losses on consecutive nights in Hartford and celebrated at center court, after first handling the Red Storm 74-43 on Monday and then beating Notre Dame 63-51. The win represented the UConn women’s fifth straight Big East Tournament Championship and 18th overall tournament title.
Since 1989, there have been only six times that the UConn women’s basketball team was not the top seed in the Big East Tournament, the last being in 2006 when they were the second seed. One of the consequences of the Huskies being the lower seed in a tournament game played at the XL Center in Hartford is that they wear road uniforms, sit on what is the visiting team bench, and are introduced by the public address announcer as “the visiting team from Storrs, Conn.”
Just over a week ago, the Fighting Irish had soundly beaten the Huskies in Hartford, a game in which head coach Geno Auriemma benched his starters with just more than three minutes left in the game, saying his team had no fight in them.
“It proved we had some fight,” said sophomore guard Bria Hartley ’14 (CLAS), who had 18 points, 7 rebounds in the championship game and was named to the All-Tournament Team. “Every time we step on the court we want to go out and prove we’re going play hard. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to fight to the end, no matter what happens. Us sitting out those last three minutes, it didn’t seem like we had that much fight. We made sure we came back and made plays.”
Auriemma, who gained his 800th career win with the championship, had talked often in recent weeks about the struggles of his young team to find themselves following the graduation of All-American Maya Moore ’11 (CLAS). In his post-game comments Tuesday, he noted that the current team’s most experience student-athletes – Tiffany Hayes ’11 (CLAS), Kelly Faris ’13 (ED), and Caroline Doty ’13 (CLAS) – had minor roles as part of two NCAA championship teams led by Moore, Tina Charles ’10 (CLAS), and Renee Montgomery ’09 (CLAS).
“In those two national championships, they were kind of like the shortstop and second baseman, whose job was: don’t hurt the team,” he said. “All of a sudden you look up, there’s no Tina, Renee, and Maya. You have to figure stuff out for yourself. Sometimes that’s a scary feeling because you don’t know if you can do it or not. Tonight and last night they weren’t looking for Tina, Maya, and Renee. This one feels really good for them. They own this one. They really, really own this one; it feels way better than the other ones.”
The Big East Tournament began for UConn on Sunday in the quarterfinals against Rutgers, in an up-and-down battle that is typical of their contests, with each team turning the ball over and challenging shots on both ends of the court. The Huskies got by the Scarlet Knights 49-34, led by Stefanie Dolson ’14 (CLAS), who grabbed 8 rebounds, scored 10 points, and blocked 4 shots, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis ’15 (CLAS), who had 17 points, including five 3-pointers, and 6 rebounds.
In the semifinal game against St. John’s, the Huskies built a 20-point lead in the first half and extended the lead to 33 points with just over five minutes remaining. They finished off the Red Storm by 74-43, led by Dolson’s 23, Mosqueda-Lewis’s 22, and Hartley’s 11 points.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had an opportunity to kind of be the team we think we are,” Auriemma said after the win, in reference to the Huskies’ struggles since January despite their mostly winning ways. “I don’t know where we kind of lost it. We became a walk it up, stagnant kind of team. We tried … to be what we were accustomed to being. I think the kids responded. We challenged them to set a tone and tempo early. They were absolutely fantastic. It was one of the better, more complete games we’ve played in a long time.”
In the championship game against the Fighting Irish, the Huskies made it clear from the beginning they would continue the previous night’s effort, battling for rebounds, pushing to a 10-point first half lead and then holding on to a single point advantage at the half. With the score tied at 37 with just over 14 minutes remaining in the game, Hartley scored 6 straight points to give the Huskies a lead they would push to 13 points – including two critical 3-point shots by Faris – while holding Notre Dame to three points until the final minute of play.
“I thought Connecticut played really well. They outplayed us today,” said Irish head coach Muffet McGraw. “I thought this was a hard-fought battle and a really good game. I think we did some things that didn’t help us, but they came out and really won the game. They just played better.”
In the championship game, Mosqueda-Lewis led all scorers with 19 points and 8 rebounds. Hartley had 18 points and 7 rebounds, while Hayes had 14 points and 8 rebounds. All-American Skylar Diggins led Notre Dame with 16 points.
With the Big East season concluded, both the Huskies, ranked fourth nationally, and the Fighting Irish, ranked third nationally, will await the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s decision next Monday on the team they will play.
Honors: Mosqueda-Lewis, who averaged 19 points and 6 rebounds per game in the tournament, was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2012 tournament, the first freshman to earn the honor since Diana Taurasi ’05 (CLAS) in 2001. Dolson and Hartley were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Mosqueda-Lewis was named the Big East Freshman of the Year and was a unanimous selection to the All-Freshman Team, which also included Kiah Stokes ’15 (CLAS). Mosqueda-Lewis received the Sixth Man Award, and was selected to All-Big East Second Team. Hayes was a unanimous selection to the All-Big East First Team, and was joined on the team by Hartley. Dolson received Honorable Mention.