LINCOLN, Neb. -- Hosting Nebraska wouldn't be playing this weekend, having fallen victim to a second-round upset at the hands of twelfth-seeded BYU. But Nebraska fans nevertheless heeded Connie Yori's message, packing Pinnacle Bank Arena, even if their home team could participate only as spectators. Over 9,600 fans witnessed the regional semifinal games, where two Cinderella teams saw their proverbial clocks strike midnight.
Sweet 16: Saturday, March 29, 2014 (Pinnacle Bank Arena, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska)
Game One: (1) Connecticut 70, (12) Brigham Young 51
BYU (28-6) made its way to the Sweet 16 via two huge upsets, and entered the regional semifinal intent on pulling off a third, regardless how improbable. In the end, top-seeded Connecticut (36-0) emerged from this crucible unscathed, but for the first 20 minutes the lowly 12-seed gave as good as they got, forcing UConn to work to keep its perfect 36-0 record intact.
The Huskies trailed by as many as six in the first half when BYU led 27-21, and only mustered a 30-29 lead at halftime.
Making conditions treacherous for the tournament's overall top seed was BYU's sharpshooting: The Cougars made 42 percent of their shots from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range in the first half, while holding UConn to just 35 percent field-goal shooting in its lowest scoring first half since March 12 of last year, when they scored 26 points in an eventual loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament championship.
Kim Beeston had 13 points to lead BYU at intermission, and Morgan Bailey put in 8. Bailey also drew the defensive assignment on UConn's sophomore star Breanna Stewart, whom she held to just four fist-half points, Stewart's lowest output for a half this season.
“Their best player didn’t have her best game tonight and part of it was Morgan (Bailey).” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma attributed his team's first-half obstacles to the tempo established by BYU.
“They also shot the ball great. They made some tough shots in the first half,” he added.
The Huskies ended the back-and-forth swing with a 10-0 run early in the second half to break a 37-37 tie and give themselves a 10-point lead (49-39) with 13:29 left to play.
Though BYU continued to fight, the Cougars would not lead again, nor would they come any closer than eight the rest of the way, as UConn blazed for 40 points in the second half, comfortably sealing the victory to advance to Elite Eight, where they will face third-seeded Texas A&M on Monday at 9:30 p.m. EDT (7:30 p.m. CDT).
UConn junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 19 points to lead all players. Stewart scored 12 points each in the second half, to finish with 19 points, making it a double-double with a game-high-tying 13 boards. Bria Hartley finished with 12 points, all of them in the second half; Moriah Jefferson contributed 11; and Stefanie Dolson just missed a double-double with nine points to go with her 13 rebounds.
Meanwhile, the stepped up Husky defense held BYU's Beestons, who had 13 first-half points, to just three in the second frame. Bailey finished with 14 points and seven rebounds; Jennifer Hamson hauled down 13 rebounds to go with nine points.
The Huskies also successfully neutralized Cougar contributor Lexi Eaton, limiting her production to eight points in the game.
“(Breanna Stewart) came out and guarded Lexi in the second half, and I think her size really got Lexi off balance,” Judkins said.
“I thought we picked up the pressure in the second half; we made them play much faster,” Auriemma explained
In the end, the Huskies remained perfect (37-0), but also showed themselves to be human, having to work their way out of a deficit. Like any other team, the UConn women will make mistakes and have off days, but they have enough All-American talent to fill potential gaps. However, you can bet Texas A&M will be studying the first-half tape to prepare for the regional final.
Game Two: (3) Texas AM 84, (7) DePaul 65
The Lincoln regional's second Sweet 16 game DePaul, the region's seven-seed, against the SEC's Texas A&M, the third-seeded team in this region. In a mirror image of the opener, the Aggies started this game with great defense and finished it with offense. DePaul, the fifth highest scoring team in the NCAA, made just 27.6 percent of its shots in the first half, while the Aggies converted 60 percent of their attempts.
Blue Demon sharpshooters Brittany Hrynko and Chenise Jenkins were held to just three points each, unable to find space for long-distance shots against the Aggies' man-to-man defense, as Texas A&M took a 14-point lead (34-28) by the break.
The Aggies swelled their edge to 22 (55-33) on a Courtney Walker jumper a little more than five minutes into the second frame. DePaul turned up the defensive pressure and mounted a 9-0 run that shaved the A&M advantage to 13 (55-42) with 12:26 remaining. A second, 7-2 spurt between the 7:24 and 5:19 marks drew DePaul to within 10 (68-58). But fueled by 10 points from Courtney Williams, the Aggies responded with a 12-2 run to push its lead back to 20 (80-60) with 2:38 left on the clock, sealing the victory.
One reason for Texas A&M's success? Jordan Jones.
"She is the best on-ball defensive player that we have coached at the point guard position. And we have had some great ones,” said Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair.
Jones commented on the strategy assistant coach Bob Starkey suggested the Aggies use to stymie the Blue Demons.
"The team felt that taking away transition would be a big part of this game,” she said.
DePaul head coach Doug Bruno blamed himself for the defeat. Knowing that Texas A&M was a good transition team, Bruno decided to take a conservative, half-court approach defensively, in hopes of preventing run-outs. It was a tactic that had worked against St. John's, another strong transition team. But it was a departure from the aggressive style of play that had brought the Blue Demons this far, and against the Aggies, it failed badly.
"Once I put us in a conservative place on the defensive side of the ball, then we became a conservative offensive team and that’s not how we play. I had to let the young women come after –- that’s how we’ve been playing all year. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the ball or how they looked on tape –- we went after them."
When DePaul turned up the heat on defense in the second half, the Blue Demons' shooting also recovered, improving to 51.5 percent and to 40.3 percent for the game as a whole, but as Bruno conceded, by then the Blue Demons were far too behind to mount much of a comeback, especially with the Aggies continuing to shoot the ball at a hot 60 percent in the second half.
"Once we started coming after them again," said Bruno of his team's return to the press in the second half, "we were able to get the pace where we wanted the pace but we were already chasing too many baskets when we got the pace where we wanted it to. That’s really how I look at the game and how I look at myself in the mirror at the end of the game. What I would’ve done differently is just come after them and let the chips fall where they may –- let’s go. I didn’t do that, but there’s a logical reason why. They are a really good open-court team. Let’s face the facts that we didn’t guard very well in the half-court conservative defense. You still have to get down and guard somebody. You still have to get down and slide your feet and stay between your man and the basket.
“I probably did the classic example of over-coaching or way-overthinking instead of just coming out and coming after them like we have played all year,” DePaul head coach Doug Bruno concluded.
"They played great defense and took away our jump shots," said DePaul's Megan Podkowa. "The key to scoring for us was driving the ball and post feeding; outside shots would be created, but they get into you and make you tight cut. ... We needed to drive the ball more and post-feed more. You saw that in the second half when we went on a run and made a comeback at them. It was too late, and we didn't have enough of it."
Walker paced A&M's scoring with 25 points; she has been averaging 22.6 points over the past five games.
Bruno praised the performance of the Williams, the Aggies' sophomore point guard. "She can stop, pop and rise. She's got that intermediate game, and very few people have that," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "She's a high-percentage 3-point shooter. Once we went to the zone, she was able to knock them down from out there."
“Coach Blair always tells me to keep it simple all the time. That’s when I'm at my best,” Williams said.
Forward Courtney Williams added 15 points and seven rebounds for Texas A&M, as all five Aggie starters fnished in double figures.
Jasmine Penny led the Blue Demons with 24 points, plus seven rebounds, despite having to play with four fouls. Megan Rogowski added 14 points, and Podkowa tacked on 11, but Hyrnko, who averages double-digit numbers, failed to score in the second half and finished with just three points as DePaul posted its lowest point total in a game this season.
Following the game, Blair noted the Texas flavor that should juice up the Elite Eight match-ups, not only in Lincoln but in the Notre Dame Regional as well.
"Odyssey Sims (Baylor) , Courtney Walker, Moriah Jefferson (Connecticut), and Jordan Jones are all from the Dallas area and played on the same AAU team, DFW Elite. Texas is producing players that are driving these national teams,” he said.
Each of these guards has helped get her team to the regional finals. The question is who will continue their postseason quest. Three of the former AAU teammates will match up Monday night, when Johnson goes up against Jones and Walker.
The prevailing narrative has UConn and Notre Dame on a collision course for the national championship, with both schools holding perfect records and few challengers. Blair is familiar with his team left out of the title discussion, and put fans and media pundits expecting a formulaic win for Connecticut on notice:
“Don’t give up on us. They counted us out in 2011 when we won the national title game. Don’t count us out for Monday. We are going give you a show,” he said.
Part of that show will include a more traditional line-up, compared to the four-guard starting rotation Blair utilized in the runaway victory over DePaul.
“I plan to put some trees, referring to taller players like Rachel Mitchell and Karla Gilbert, in the paint to counter Connecticut’s big post players,” he said.
Elite Eight: (1) Connecticut (37-0) v. (3) Texas A&M (27-4) -- Monday, March 31, 2014 -- 9:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. CDT)