TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — It was a mini test at best, yet Geno Auriemma felt it was just what top-ranked Connecticut needed heading into the postseason.
Breanna Stewart scored 29 points while Morgan Tuck and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18 apiece Monday night as the Huskies beat South Florida 88-65 on Monday night for their 28th straight win.
Auriemma watched his team build its lead to 30 before USF, which lost at UConn by 42 in January, trimmed its deficit to 17 and force the Huskies to regroup and put the game away.
“This is exactly what we needed tonight,” the coach said. “Obviously we wanted to win, but I’m glad that it played out the way it did. I really am.”
The Huskies (29-1, 18-0) tuned up for next weekend’s American Athletic Conference tournament by holding the league’s second-place team to 38 percent shooting and finished unbeaten in the conference for a second straight year.
USF (24-6, 15-3) fell to the two-time defending national champions for the second time in what arguably has been the best season in school history. Despite losing to UConn by an average of 32.5 points, the Bulls will enter the postseason with expectations of having some success in the NCAA tournament this month.
UConn, meanwhile, is looking to build on going unbeaten in conference play during a regular season for the 12th time and eventually make a return trip to Tampa, site of the Women’s Final Four, in April.
Auriemma talked how excited his team is about the approaching conference tournament, as well as the opportunity ahead in the NCAAs.
There was no talk of having unfinished business in Tampa.
“We know that we want to come back here, but this is a business trip,” Stewart said.
“Nobody really mentioned it. … We try not to do that,” Auriemma said. “We came down here to play South Florida, and we knew that the game that we played up at our place against them last time wasn’t really indicative of their team. … So we came down here to play these guys and take care of that before we start thinking about anything down the road.”
Stewart compiled her season-high scoring total on 12 of 20 shooting and also grabbed 11 rebounds. Tuck made eight of 10 shots, and Mosqueda-Lewis hit four of UConn’s 3-pointers.
Courtney Williams led USF with 26 points. Tamara Taylor finished with 10.
“We won the second half and lost by 23,” Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said, adding that he hopes the teams will meet again next Monday night in the AAC tournament final.
“And if we want to finish the season here in Tampa,” Fernandez said, “we’ll have to play them a fourth time.”
The Huskies clinched their 21st regular season conference championship with last Saturday’s 87-24 rout of Memphis and improved to 16-0 all-time against USF, which entered Monday night having won 10 of 11 games following the Bulls’ 92-50 loss in Storrs on Jan. 18.
This one looked like it might be an even bigger mismatch until USF made a second-half run that forced UConn work until closing minutes.
USF took its only lead on Williams’ driving layup, UConn snapped a 2-2 tie on Moriah Jefferson’s 3-pointer and never looked back. The Huskies gradually built the lead to 54-30 at the half, with Stewart scoring 17 points, Tuck delivering 11 and Mosqueda-Lewis making three of four 3-pointers in adding 11.
Williams did all she could to try to keep the Bulls in the game, teaming with Taylor to lead a 17-4 run that trimmed a 30-point deficit to 70-53 midway through the second half. Taylor began and ended the surge with 3-pointers, while Williams scored seven to give a season-best crowd of 5,565 at Sun Dome something to cheer.
“We kept coming at them,” Fernandez said, “kept fighting.” Fernandez said.
UConn has won 28 in a row since suffering a two-point loss in overtime at Stanford in November. Only one other team, Notre Dame, played the Huskies closer than USF did Monday night, losing by 18 to the Huskies on Dec. 6.
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UConn will enter the NCAA tournament, looking for its eighth consecutive trip to the Final Four. The Huskies also reached the national semifinals, when the Women’s Final Four was played in Tampa in 2008.
Connecticut: The Huskies shot 57 percent from the field, including 9 of 22 from 3-point range (40.9 percent) and outscored the Bulls 25-9 off turnovers.
South Florida: Williams scored the second-high point total against UConn this season. She also had 23 — fourth-most against the Huskies — in the earlier meeting.
Connecticut: As the top seed in the AAC tourney, the Huskies begin play in Saturday’s quarterfinals in Uncasville, Conn. In addition to winning 21 regular season titles, UConn has captured 19 conference tournament championships.
South Florida: The Bulls are the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Like UConn, they have a first-round bye and begin play in the quarterfinals.