Quarters and Semis at the American: No surprises, a few great performances and a scare for Louisville
STORRS, Conn. -- The American Athletic Conference is not a premier league, though there can be no doubt it includes some premiere teams. Friday’s first round games saw the four worst of the AAC teams in action, and actually saw an upset, as No. 10 Houston doubled its league wins from one to two by upsetting Memphis. But almost nobody was watching.
Saturday’s quarterfinal games were never in doubt as the higher seeds all easily advanced, outscoring their lesser opponents by a combined 122 points.
But in Sunday's semifinals things began to get interesting. The day's games saw two top teams (UConn and Louisville) playing two NCAA bubble teams (Rutgers and South Florida). Louisville got a scare from a South Florida team that has beaten everyone they have played except Louisville and Connecticut since they got healthy in January. Their near-upset of Louisville on Sunday should get the attention of the NCAA Selection Committee, but this league probably only gets three teams into the tournament, and USF will probably be outside looking in.
Quarterfinals Recaps – Saturday March 8, 2014
Game Three (4) Rutgers 68 v. (5) SMU 49
Rutgers’ players must like to sleep late. In the noon game, the Scarlet Knights (21-8, 12-6) snoozed through the first half against a physically inferior Southern Methodist squad, and entered the locker room behind 24-30. Rutgers had been to the free throw line just once, and shot 36 percent for the half. Even the defense, usually a Rutgers strong point, seemed slow and porous. SMU’s Keena Mays scored 17 in the half.
After the intermission, the Vivian Stringer’s real team took the floor. The Scarlet Knights won the half 44-19, held Mays to three points, scored eighteen points from the stripe, and shot 51 percent. Once the defense clamped down, SMU (17-12, 8-10) became stagnant, apparently waiting for Mays to do it all. With Rutgers doubling her on every possession, this was a recipe for the disaster the second half became. Rutgers also woke up offensively, as Kahleah Cooper scored eighteen and freshman Tayler Scaife a dozen in the second half.
The final score was 68-49. Rutgers moved on to play Connecticut in the early game on Sunday.
Game Four: No. 1 UConn 72 v. No. 8 Cincinnati 42
The only thing of note in this one-sided affair was the Connecticut (31-0, 18-0) started slowly and shot poorly from the perimeter throughout. They turned the ball over sixteen times, and managed just twelve assists, a shocking stat for a team that ranks second nationally in assist/turnover ratio. Cincinnati (13-17, 6-13) is a very quick team, and their defense was a contributor to the sloppy play. The Huskies sensibly moved the play to the paint and stepped up their smothering defense. UConn scored 32 points in the paint and 25 off 23 Bearcat turnovers. The final was 72-42.
Game Five: No. 2 Louisville 88 v. No. 10 Houston 43
This game was basically unwatchable. Houston (6-24, 2-17) turned the ball over 16 times in the first half. Louisville (31-0, 16-2) went into the locker room leading 46-19. While the Cougars looked a bit more organized in the second half, and Louisville starting center Sara Hammond picked up her fourth foul early in the second half, and eventually fouled out. She played just sixteen minutes. Little else challenged the Cardinals, even as Coach Jeff Walz rested his starters for long periods, and none were in the game at the ten minute mark, though they returned one at a time. The final was 88-43.
Game Six: No. 3 South Florida 72 v. No. 6 Temple 44
Temple’s Feyonda Fitzgerald scored twenty points. All of her teammates scored twenty-four. Inga Orekhova scored twenty-two for South Florida18-11, 13-5), which used smothering defense to dominate their shorter and slower opponent. Temple (14-15, 8-10) also sealed their own fate, however, by failing to find an offense that did not require the three point shot. The Owls were 0-14 from beyond the arc. Shouldn’t there come a time when a team realizes that offense is not working? South Florida ( dominated the boards, 49-35, on its way to a 72-44 victory.
Day Three: Semifinals - Sunday March 9
Semifinal 1 (Game Seven): No. 1 Connecticut 83 v. No. 4 Rutgers 57
Anyone not a Rutgers fan who watched UConn’s first half blitz in this game could not help but be entertained and awed. The Huskies scored on their first four possessions, from four different players, including a drive, a post move and two threes. Defensively, they forced Rutgers into desperation shots. The futility of the first six Scarlet Knight possessions included two blocks and a steal. Connecticut (32-0, 19-0)hit its first four threes, and nine of twelve in the half. The Huskies had fifteen assists on twenty buckets in a fifty point half, shooting just under 60%. The UConn defense blocked five shots and forced two shot-clock violations. Rutgers (22-8, 13-6) shot 28 percent, on the way to a 50-19 deficit. Coach Geno Auriemma said of this half of basketball, “
Rutgers came out with renewed energy, hitting four of their first nine shots, and forcing two quick Connecticut turnovers. Betnijah Laney remembered that she has a secure fifteen footer. But the Huskies regained their focus, continued raining threes, and slowly extended their lead. Stoppages in play were few, and nobody walked the ball up all game. Taylor Scaife found her range, hitting a number of pull-up and fade-away twelve footers that even the UConn defense could not inhibit. C. Vivian Stringer’s squad played the second half like a NCAA contender which, at 22-9 they may be despite a 44 RPI. After consecutive miserable first halves, they have some work to do if they are to be successful. With three Connecticut starters on the bench from the 9:00 mark, Rutgers outscored UConn in the second half 38-33. It was , however, far too little to make up for the first twenty minutes. The final score was 83-57.
Note of the game. Rutgers attempted no three-point shots. Asked about it, Coach Vivian Stringer was blunt: “If you can’t hit three-point shots, why would you take them? . . . When I get some three-point shooters next year, we will do that.” Coach Auriemma commented, “I don’t think I can remember a game where a team took no threes.”
Semifinal 2 (Game Eight): No. 2 Louisville 60 v. No. 3 South Florida 56
At the 11:00 minute mark of the first half, USF (19-11, 14-5) led 20-10, and Louisville head coach Jeff Walz had to be growing anxious, at the very least, about his team's pride, not to mention its prospects of an NCAA Tournament 1-seed. Active deny defense and good shot selection kept the underdogs ahead, while Shoni Schimmel spent a surprising amount of time on the bench. She returned to hit three 3-pointers in two minutes to tie the game with four minutes to play. Her fourth three of the half extended the score to 33-29, where it stood as the half ended.
This game was marred by the worst officiating of the AAC season at a Connecticut venue, with phantom fouls on straight-up defense alternating with no-calls while players were thrown to the floor. For most of this season’s AAC contests, the officials have been virtually invisible, controlling but never deciding games. This crew was a throw-back to the bad old days of regularly missed calls and games decided on survival as much as skill. It was nothing short of embarrassing.
The second half was the most competitive of the tournament. The teams traded baskets until USF took a 44-40 lead as Inga Orekhova hit consecutive threes, completing a four-point play on the second. The Bulls maintained a tenuous lead, never more than five points, through the bulk of the half. Neither team could complete a play in the paint, and it became clear that the game would be decided on fouls and threes. Schimmel and Orekhova hit ever longer threes, as their respective teams seemed unable to run screens to get them open. The game was tied at 2:34, when a phantom rebounding foul sent Louisville to the line to take a 56-54 lead. Courtney Williams, a tiny guard, scored on her second offensive rebound of the possession to tie it again with a minute remaining. Shonni Schimmel then hit a jumper in traffic to take the lead 58-56. Her sister Jude stole the ball on the ensuing play and hit both free throws to seal a 60-56 squeaker for the nation’s number three team.
Louisville (29-3, 17-2) moved on to play UConn Monday night in the tournament final. The two teams meet for the second time in eight days and the third time this season. Connecticut beat the Cardinals by 19 in Storrs and by 20 at Louisville. How can Louisville prevail? Coach Walz was realistic. “You have to force them to play a half-court game, and then defend in the half court,” he said. “To beat them you’ve got to score seventy points on them, and I don’t think they’ve let anyone score seventy on them this year.” Let’s be clear: although Louisville is a very good team, they have not beaten Connecticut in the last twenty years.
As Auriemma said in a different context many years back, “It isn’t a rivalry until they’ve beaten us.” Notre Dame – UConn is a rivalry. Absent a colossal upset on Monday, Connecticut-Louisville is not.