The Bulls, with AAC Freshman of the Year Kitija Laksa (ankle) dressing for the first time in six games, appeared to have the stars aligned to do something no AAC team has ever done in upsetting No. 1 UConn.
However, the moment UConn senior forward Breanna Stewart drove into the lane past a pair of Bulls’ defenders to give UConn its first lead, there was a sense of what was to come.
The Bulls were able to take a 17-13 lead early into the second quarter, but the Huskies went on the type of run that has been their trademark under Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma to capture their third American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship, beating the Bulls 77-51 on Monday night.
The victory pushes the Huskies’ winning streak to a staggering 69 games — the third longest in NCAA history.
USF (23-9, 14-4) looked sharp early offensively, taking a 14-13 lead after the first quarter despite seven turnovers.
As Stewart, the two-time defending AP Player of the Year, gave UConn (32-0,18-0) its first lead of the game 6:45 into the second quarter, you could feel the momentum seemed to shift in favor of the Huskies in front of their home crowd in Uncasville, Connecticut.
The Bulls struggled to find an offensive rhythm after UConn took the lead and were outscored 23-10 in the second quarter.
The Huskies, led by Stewart and senior guard Moriah Jefferson, took away the Bulls most viable offensive options in seniors Courtney Williams and Alicia Jenkins with stout defensive pressure.
“We just wanted to come out and be aggressive, and that’s what we did,” Stewart said. “Our defense is huge. I mean, that starts everything for us offensively. Making Courtney Williams frustrated getting the ball was the big game plan.”
Jenkins, who led the AAC in rebounds this season, was held to only a pair of rebounds, her lowest total in a game she has started this season. Williams scored 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting.
Although playing for the first time since sustaining a high ankle sprain against Memphis on Feb.21, Laksa was held to three points after hitting her first shot coming off the bench.
The Bulls, one of the country’s best free-throw shooting teams (14.3 made per game), were held scoreless from the charity stripe, with Williams missing the team’s lone attempt.
The loss moves USF to 0-20 all-time against UConn.
The Bulls will now wait to hear whether they will host a game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after their postseason fate is decided.
The Bulls will learn their seeding next Monday on the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Selection Show airing live on ESPN at 7pm.