UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — UConn beat South Florida by 14 points in the American Athletic Conference final, a victory that for the Huskies could be considered a squeaker.
UConn has never lost an AAC regular-season or tournament game and, before Monday’s 84-70 win, had never won a conference game by fewer than 20 points.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led four UConn players in double figures with 23 points and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after scoring 62 points over three games.
Breanna Stewart added 22 points and 12 rebounds for the Huskies (32-1), who led by 23 at halftime and held off USF (26-7) after intermission. Morgan Tuck had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Moriah Jefferson scored 14 points.
“If (those) four starters play like they played this weekend and like they played in some of the big games that we played this year, we are going to be hard to beat,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
Shalethia Stringfield tied a career high with 20 points to pace South Florida (26-7). Tamara Taylor had 17 points and Courtney Williams added 16 for the Bulls.
Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored 62 points over the three games, was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. She had 13 in the first half as UConn built a 46-23 lead. The senior sharpshooter was in double figures of every first half UConn played during the tournament.
UConn dominated underneath, outscoring USF 50-18 in the paint, outrebounding the Bulls 47-20 and getting 20 second-chance baskets.
“The last time we played them, they had a lot of offensive rebounds,” said Tuck. “So we tried to make sure we were boxing out and being more aggressive than they were.”
It was the 20th conference tournament win for the nine-time national champions.
Tuck hit four of her first five shots from the floor, helping UConn on a 14-2 run that gave the Huskies a 21-8 lead early.
But Tuck picked up her second foul midway through the half, and went to the bench. Her replacement, Kiah Stokes, also picked up two quick fouls, forcing Auriemma to go to freshman forward Gabby Williams.
She promptly grabbed two offensive rebounds and scored on put-backs, giving UConn its first 20-point lead at 37-17.
“There would have been a different feel to the game if Gabby hadn’t done that,” Auriemma said.
Courtney Williams and Stringfield combined for just 10 points in the first half, but scored 28 in the second, when the Bulls hit 50 percent of their shots.
But the UConn lead was too much to overcome. A Tuck layup gave the Huskies an 80-61 advantage with 2:37 left.
“We do need to focus on coming out in the second half as intense and aggressive as we were in the first half,” said Mosqueda-Lewis. “But I’m not too worried about it. It’s something we’re going to work on in practice.”
UConn beat Cincinnati by 59 in the quarterfinals and routed East Carolina by 50 in the semifinals.
South Florida’s only losses in its last eight games have come to UConn. The Bulls beat Memphis by 28 in the quarterfinals and had a nine-point win over Tulane in the semifinals in a game that was tied with less than four minutes to play.
USF has given the Huskies their toughest competition in the American Conference this season. UConn, which won its regular-season conference games by an average of 48.7 points, beat the Bulls by 42 in Storrs, but by a relatively close 23 points in the regular-season finale in Florida.
“In the last seven days, these basketball players have proven that they can compete and play with anybody in the country,” said USF coach Jose Fernandez.
UConn: Mosqueda-Lewis was just 1 of 5 from 3-point range. She now has 381 in her career and needs just 11 during the NCAA Tournament to match the Division I record of 392. She says there is a little pressure, because if the Huskies lose before she reaches the mark, she won’t get another chance.
USF: The Bulls fell to 0-17 all-time against UConn. South Florida was playing in its first-ever conference final. UConn has been in 25. South Florida came into the game 33-0 over the past two seasons when scoring more than 70 points.
Auriemma on being outscored in the second half: “Anytime somebody goes into the locker room and they’re down 30 or they’re down 20 and they are getting blown out and they come out and they stay blown out, then you know what, they shouldn’t come out in the second half at all.”
UConn and South Florida both await their seeding in the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced on Monday, March 16.