TAMPA, Fla. - Napheesa Collierâ€™s last regular season game for the UConn womenâ€™s basketball team played out much like her senior year has so far.
The second-ranked Huskies won their sixth consecutive American Athletic Conference championship and have put themselves in line for a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can tack on the league tourney title. But it hasnâ€™t been all smooth and certainly not easy.
â€śItâ€™s been a dogfight, especially compared to the other years Iâ€™ve been here,â€ť Collier said. â€śTeams are getting better and they played hard against us this season. It wasnâ€™t pretty all the time but we would always fight back as hard as we could.â€ť
After having the fight taken to it by South Florida for 20 minutes Monday night, UConn responded in the third quarter and closed like a championship team in the fourth. The Huskies shut out the Bulls for the final 6:25, and the game-ending 9-0 run secured a 57-47 AAC win before an announced Senior Night crowd of 5,614 at the Yuengling Center.
â€śThe second half we responded in a way we can take forward to the tournament,â€ť UConn point guard Crystal Dangerfield said. â€śWe were aggressive and when we put our minds to pressing we can turn people over. We had a pretty bad - as bad as weâ€™ve had this season - first half. The second half we got it turned around.â€ť
The Huskies (28-2 overall, 16-0 AAC) will be the top seed for the AAC Tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena and will start their bid for a sixth straight crown with a quarterfinal game against either No. 8 East Carolina or ninth-seeded SMU Saturday at 2 p.m. The semifinals are Sunday and the championship game Monday.
UConn hopes to have Katie Lou Samuelson available for the weekend. The two-time All-American missed her first game of the season Monday night after suffering back spasms following a collision with Houstonâ€™s Julia Blackshell-Fair during the second quarter of Saturdayâ€™s game at Gampel Pavilion. She did not practice Sunday before traveling here with the team.
It didnâ€™t take long for the Huskies to show how much they missed their senior star.
â€śThe game plan coming in was to be disruptive and to get South Florida out of their rhythm,â€ť UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. â€śWe were never able to do that in the first half. We didnâ€™t make any shots. We knew going in that without Lou it was going to be hard to get anything done in the lane. Theyâ€™re not going to stretch out on anyone but Lou.
â€śThe last 20 minutes I thought we played with a certain intensity level that was really fun to watch. Thatâ€™s what itâ€™s going to take this time of year.â€ť
The inspired Bulls led the uninspired Huskies by as many as nine before settling for a 29-25 edge at the break.
â€śIt was pretty embarrassing how we came out in the first half,â€ť Collier said.
UConn, though, turned up the full-court pressure in the third quarter to force 10 turnovers with the aid of freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa - who started for Samuelson - and sophomore Mikayla Coombs.
Nelson-Ododa didnâ€™t score but had five of her six rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots while playing the entire second half. Coombs also made a difference in her 20 minutes off the bench with a pair of steals and a strong third-quarter drive to the basket.
â€śIf Olivia does what she did in the second half and she does it every game, sheâ€™s a factor in the game,â€ť Auriemma said. â€śJust like Mikayla. Thatâ€™s what we need them to be.â€ť