TAMPA, Fla. -- Connecticut’s 81-58 dismantling of Maryland in Sunday’s second national semifinal was so thorough, it extended beyond the scoreboard.
While the Maryland band quietly filed out following the final minutes -- one band member mournfully wearing a state flag like a shawl -- the UConn cheerleaders assembled for a photo with the 2015 Women’s Final Four logo at Amalie Arena’s midcourt like they owned the joint.
Their top-ranked women’s basketball team had played like it, dominating the Terrapins statistically and physically. Forwards Morgan Tuck and Breanna Stewart led with 24 and 25 points, respectively, while guard Moriah Jefferson tossed in 14. Hampered by foul trouble, forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis -- the team’s second-leading scorer --was held to four points, but it didn’t matter.The Huskies shot sure and true, their 53.7 percent from the field (29 of 54) not far off their season average of 54.3 percent. They were 15 of 18 from the line (83.3 percent) and 8 of 22 (36.4 percent) from 3-point range.
“Obviously we played really well for long stretches at a time,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said.
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese had to look past the numerical damage.
“Obviously the final score doesn’t reflect the fight,” she said of her squad’s effort.
The Terrapins led once (8-7) at 16:58 of the first half. And the first half wasn’t a Husky runaway. Maryland hung around early, tying the game 4-4 at 18:34 and 10-10 at 16:32. Then UConn began edging ahead by three and four points at a time, stretching the lead to eight points (20-14) at 12:50 and expanding it to 10 points (29-19) at 7:06. The Huskies led 44-33 at halftime, not an impervious spread.
The second half, however, was mostly UConn. Maryland, which shot 48.4 percent from the field in the first half, shot 32.1 percent in the second half and finished 40.7 percent (24 of 59) overall. Stewart and Tuck continued to mix it up inside, dominating around the basket. While Maryland owned an advantage with guard depth, UConn owned the front-court advantage, which cancelled out Maryland’s back court.
“We've got the kind of team when we go on runs and things start breaking our way, we take advantage of those situations, and we did so again tonight,” Auriemma said of his team’s interior dominance. “And we felt going into the game we had a little bit of an advantage with these two, with Morgan and Stewy, and we tried to really take advantage of that. And obviously they were great. I can't say enough about them.”
UConn opened the second half with a nine-point run, going up by 20 points (53-33) at 16:16. Brionna Jones scored Maryland’s first second-half points at 15:56, to cut the deficit to 53-35, but the Terps simply couldn’t keep up, or cut into UConn’s lead.
“I just think we continued to get deflated when they went on their runs,” said Maryland guard Lexi Brown. “And the thing about UConn, it’s not just one person keying their runs.”Excellence is expected from Stewart, a first-team All-American. Tuck, who missed UConn’s 2014 Final Four appearance due to recovery from knee surgery, is viewed as a secret weapon, especially with Mosqueda-Lewis cooled by foul trouble. Morgan, Stewart and Jefferson each drained two 3-pointers.
“I think it was a credit to my teammates,” Tuck said of her big night. “They gave me the ball where I'm best at. That's around the basket or driving to the basket. So I think I played well because my teammates played well as well.”
Frese cited UConn’s second-half aggressiveness as the key to the game.
“They really clamped us down from the field and we were really having a difficult time trying to score,” she said.
Per Stewart, the motivation exceeds the opponent at this stage of the season. The Huskies face Notre Dame in Tuesday night’s national title game and are after a third consecutive NCAA championship and 10th overall.
“We don’t just want to play in the national championship game,” Stewart said. “We want to win the national championship game.”
Frese hopes tough losses to other top teams will pay off in a similar situation for hers down the road.
“This especially -- continuing to play UConn and continuing to play Notre Dame -- will make us better,” she said.