UConn Never Lets Rutgers Into AAC Semifinal

The UConn women rolled past Rutgers to head to the AAC championship game. (CLOE POISSON)

UNCASVILLE — There are days when the things UConn does better than just about everyone else in women's basketball conspire take the oxygen out of an opponent.

Of course, it's not every day you see it all mesh in the first seven minutes in the semifinals of a conference tournament against a stout rival like Rutgers.

But it did on Sunday. The Huskies didn't just take the air out of the Scarlet Knights. They sent them spiraling to the ceiling as if a pin popped them.

"It's like being in a boxing ring and they try to knock you out in the first 10 minutes," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said.

If you were a little late getting to your seat at the Mohegan Sun Arena, well, UConn just couldn't wait. It got things going from the tip by scoring the first 13 points in just three minutes and then cruising to an 83-57 win.

"The way we started this game was exactly the way you want a game to start," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We came out with aggression, got out in transition, moved the ball great. We got everyone involved, not just one player.

"That first 20 minutes was as good as you can hope for, especially in the postseason."

The Huskies (33-0), winners of 39 straight, will play for the first American Athletic Conference title Monday against Louisville (30-3). The Cardinals hung on to beat South Florida 60-56 in the other semifinal.

UConn has handed Louisville two of its three defeats, the latest a 68-48 win at KFC Yum! Center on March 3.

"It's never easy to play a team twice in a week," Auriemma said. "There is a lot they do we struggle with."

Louisville's 17-point loss to the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion on Feb. 9 was the closest any AAC team has come to them this season.

UConn had five players in double figures, but was led again by sophomore Breanna Stewart. She scored 22 points, her fifth straight 20-plus game and her 18th of the season. She added seven rebounds.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 19 points, shooting 5-for-9 from three-point range. Stefanie Dolson added 15 points and six rebounds. Bria Hartley had 12 points, nine assists and five rebounds. Moriah Jefferson had 10 points and seven assists.

The starting five scored their first 74 points until Brianna Banks made a free throw with 4:04 remaining. That made it 75-49. Saniya Chong then chimed in twice from the line less than a minute later. They combined for five.

Rutgers had three players in double figures, led by Briyona Canty, who scored 16 points. Kahleah Copper and Tyler Scaife added 12 each.

There were many moments in the first 10 minutes that illustrated how committed UConn was to this game.

"We have been talking about how we want to have a better start in games," Hartley said. "When we are playing like that, it's fun. We were all enjoying it. And we want to keep playing like that the rest of the way [in the postseason]."

Frankly, the Huskies submerged the Scarlet Knights before they had a chance to reach for a buoy. It was fast and frenetic and fatal for Rutgers.

"I wish we could start out like this every game, but sometimes the other team has something to do with it [preventing it]," Auriemma said. "I don't think there was anything Rutgers could do to stop it."

But the best of the best was provided by UConn's best, Stewart.

Consider that UConn was already leading 30-9 with 9:14 to play in the first half when she sprinted down the floor to catch Betnijah Laney who was headed for a layup. Stewart's resounding block brought the fans to their feet.

"I honestly did think I was going to get it," Stewart said. "She slowed up a little and I was able to get there and make the block. Most of the time we are always hustling and once someone turns the ball over [on UConn] we want to make up for it."

Less than two minutes later, she drained a three-pointer to make the score 35-9.

Yes, that's what the AAC player of the year can do.

Stewart scored 15 points in the first half, shooting 6-for-13 with two three-pointers. Dolson added 11 points, shooting 5-for-6. UConn was 20 of 34 from the floor in the half with nine three-pointers, one from Dolson.

Moriah Jefferson got UConn started with a layup just 13 seconds in. And the score was 13-0 before Scaife, the freshman of the year in the AAC, finally put the Scarlet Knights on the board for the first time with 16:41 to play.

Stewart's layup with 14:24 to play in the half provided the first 20-point lead. Dolson's three-point shot with 2:14 remaining jumped the lead to 30 at 47-17.

In many ways, the game was quite different than the previous two meetings of the season. Even though UConn won them by a combined 67 points, the path was grittier.

Not Sunday. It was smooth, even though UConn was outscored 38-33 in the second half. And it helped that Rutgers did not take a three-point shot.

"I don't know if I ever remember that happening," Auriemma said. "I guess if you know you aren't going to make them, why shoot them?"

Stringer agreed, praising UConn's defensive approach.

"They do so many great things [defensively] and they don't always get credit for it," she said. "It's not obvious until you see the types of things we had to do."