The seedings held in the semifinals as they had in the quarters, with Number One Connecticut advancing over Villanova with a 30-point win, their 18th of the season, to face Number Two Louisville, which scraped out a difficult victory over Pittsburgh.
This would be the second straight year that the two would face each other in the final for the championship. Louisville had never beaten Connecticut, with the closest effort in the six game series coming in last year’s Big East final. This season, in late January, Connecticut defeated the Cardinals by 28 points (93-65). Though UConn was the odds on favorite going into this year's final, one had to bear in mind that last year’s regular season 21-point UConn victory hardly anticipated what turned out to be a very close final between these two teams, a 65-59 nailbiter.
A Connecticut win tonight would yield their fifteenth Big East tournament title and would seal the deal on the top NCAA Number One seed for this year. A victory by Louisville, on the other hand, could well give them a Number One seed of their own.
Alas for Louisville, however, the ending of this story was a dominant no-contest by the incomparable UConn Huskies.
GETTING THERE: THE BIG EAST CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
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|#1||CONNECTICUT || v. ||#4||VILLANOVA
|72 (W) || ||42 (L)
Villanova imposed its style of play on Connecticut for an extended period in the first Big East semifinal. The pace was slow, and ‘Nova ran the clock down. After trailing 22-11 after eight minutes, 'Nova hit six of its first 10 threes to tie the score at 26 at 15 minutes into the first period.
Meanwhile, however, Tina Charles was effective in the post when UConn got her the ball, and Kalana Greene was once again active on the boards.
Maya Moore, on the other hand, played right into Villanova’s hands with another contact-averse performance as a three-point specialist. Unfortunately for UConn, for the second game running, she was not particularly useful from beyond the arc, hitting just one of five from downtown.
It’s okay to be passive about penetrating the paint if you are shooting 42% from beyond the arc, but not if you miss those threes. Then you are just being passive. Moore, on offense, was just that.
On defense, however, she was stellar, delivering a colossal block of a would-be three-pointer from the corner, and grabbing two steals that led to layups at the Connecticut end, just as Villanova had evened the score.
The Wildcats missed their last four three-point attempts of the half, which ended with Connecticut on top, 37-26, tying the largest lead of the game (11).
Connecticut opened the second half looking more like a Number One team. Now, they imposed their own pace with an 18-4 run in the first eight minutes of the half, which effectively ended the game.
For the second straight game, the suffocating Husky defense held the opposing team’s best player scoreless. The intensity of UConn’s defense was most evident in the relentlessness of Moore, and of freshman Tiffany Hayes, who was assigned to guard ‘Nova’s leading scorer, Laura Kurz. Kurz had tallied double figures in 27 consecutive games, but was held scoreless in her 31 minutes of Big East semifinals' action.
The Villanova three-point shooting also came to earth in the second stanza, as 'Nova hit just two of nine in the period, to end the game 8-23, a creditable 34 percent, but not nearly enough to keep pace with Connecticut.
Despite the lopsided, 72-42 victory, however, both positive and dangerous signs persisted for the Huskies in this game. The positives are the stifling defense, Tina Charles’ new found consistency, and the great play of Kalana Greene, so far is my candidate for the tournament MVP (31 points, on 14-19 shooting, and 15 rebounds).
|Connecticut's Kalana Greene (32) looks up for a shot as Villanova's Lisa Karcic, center, and Kyle Dougherty guard her in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game in the Big East Conference women's basketball tournament semifinal round in Hartford, Conn., Monday, March 9, 2009. |
On the other side of the ledger, Renee Montgomery was 6-21 in her last 52 minutes, and UConn was a paltry 7-30 from beyond the arc in the tournament. Montgomery came into the tournament as a consistent and timely scorer for the season, but her shooting so far eerily resembles her post-season last year, where she appeared worn out from her trio of roles as point guard, major scorer, and team leader.
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|#2||LOUISVILLE || v. ||#3||PITTSBURGH
|69 (W) || ||63 (L)
It will be this game, and not the championship final, that Louisville will want to look back on when reminiscing about the Big East Tournament. It was a game that showed just how worthy an opponent Connecticut ultimately overpowered.
Pitt shot just 25% from the floor to Louisville’s 57.7% in the first half of the second semifinal. Shavonte Zellous was a paltry one-of-eight from the floor. In contrast, Candyce Bingham and Angel McCoughtry were a combined 9-14.
At least eight of Pitt’s missed shots were within two feet of the hoop. Pitt Coach Agnus Beranato was almost certainly annoyed that her team had turned itself into a squad of jump-shooters who missed almost every two-footer they did take in the paint. She also must have been thrilled that her team went into the locker room down by only 10 points, 41-31.
Zellous kept Pitt in the game from the line, scoring seven points there, while Shala Scott’s three triples led Pitt's scoring.
On the other side of the ball, McCoughtry had 12 points and seven boards in the first half, and Bingham 10 points (including a rare three) and five rebounds, in 19 minutes each.
Pittsburgh came out of the locker room with intensity and aggression, and made a game of it in the second half with an 11-2 opening run to close to within one, 44-43. They then promptly turned the ball over three times, yielding a 10-2 run to Louisville.
The Panthers pulled within three several more times, but each time were barred from the lead by McCoughtry, who simply refused to let her team lose.
|Louisville's Angel McCoughtry, top, shoots over Pittsburgh's Shayla Scott during Louisville's 69-63 victory in an NCAA semifinal college basketball game at the Big East Conference women's tournament in Hartford, Conn., on Monday, March 9, 2009. McCoughtry dominated the tempo of the game, simply refusing to allow her team to lose. |
At the 2:10 mark, Pitt forced a turnover, ran the second consecutive set play to 6'6" Pepper Wilson inside, and led for the first time since 12:37 in the first half.
Once more, Pitt could not live with prosperity, as Wilson was fouled but missed the front end of a one-and-one. McCoughtry then took control for the last time, with two athletic jumpers sandwiching a Pitt turnover, to give the Cardinals the lead by four, 67-63, with 23.5 seconds remaining. Renee Byrd made two meaningless free throws for the final score.
Pittsburgh came up short once more in this close game. A victory would have been an huge step for this developing program, but it was not to happen this year. Pittsburgh is a clear NCAA team, however, probably as a four or five seed, possibly in Bowling Green.
BIG EAST CHAMPIONSHIP, Tuesday, March 10, 7:00 p.m.
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|#1||CONNECTICUT || v. ||#2||LOUISVILLE
|75 (W) || ||36 (L)
Louisville joined the Big East in the 2005-06 season. Prior to Tuesday’s Tournament Final, the Cardinals and Huskies have played six games, with Connecticut winning all of them. Four contests were in the regular season, a seven-point UConn victory in 2006, and three 20+ point wins over the next three seasons. The teams have met twice before in the tournament, a 26-point Louisville loss in the 2007 quarterfinal, and last year’s exciting and competitive Tournament Final, a hard-fought 65-59, Husky victory.
Angel McCoughtry and Renee Montgomery have played in every game between the two, and tonight would be the final conference meeting between the two.
Although UConn’s stellar defense has held the top scorers of the two teams they have faced in this tournament to a total of zero points, that was not the plan, nor did it even appear possible going into this game, against Angel McCoughtry. As Coach Geno Auriemma put it, “She is going to get her 25 or whatever points. What we try to do is make it hard for her.”
The numbers show that both the Huskies and McCoughtry have been successful in their respective endeavors. In the previous six games, McCoughtry scored 118 points (19.6 ppg) and grabbed 54 rebounds (6.0 rpg), but UConn pressure allowed her to average just 34% from the field. Most anticipated a similar outcome tonight--a UConn victory, overcoming an impressive outing by McCoughtry.
Then they actually played the game, a game that showed just how good this UConn team actually is.
“They were just everywhere [on defense]”, McCoughtry lamented after it ended. “Everywhere you went, there was somebody there.” Maya Moore and Tina Charles had colossal offensive games, but this one, like so many others for Connecticut, was won on defense.
In first half, UConn led, 18-7, then 25-9, and then 50-19 before Louisville scored the last four points of the half from the free throw line. Tiffany Hayes and Kalana Greene each picked up three fouls while holding McCoughtry to eight points on 3-12 shooting.
Connecticut shot 58.6% for the half, with assists on 9 of 17 hoops. Louisville shot 25%, scoring a third of their points from the line. Maya Moore had 19 for the Huskies in the first half alone, including four treys, while Tina Charles had a near first-half double-double with 13 points and 9 boards.
UConn out-rebounded the Cardinals 25-13. Louisville’s bench was called for a technical foul and Cardinals' freshman Tiera Stephen was tagged with an intentional foul on a Maya Moore steal and breakaway. Moore scored the goal as she was pushed into the seats, and then sank one of the two free-throws. As should be obvious, Louisville looked totally overmatched.
Then came the second half. It was a study in "D." UConn held Louisville completely scoreless for eight minutes and three seconds. Indeed, UConn held Louisville without a field goal even longer--for 10 minutes and 15 seconds.
With 7:09 remaining, the score was 70-29, and Louisville Coach Jeff Walz conceded the game by pulling his starters. Geno Auriemma followed suit on the next dead ball.
For the evening, Tiffany Hayes, Kalana Greene and Maya Moore held McCoughtry to just nine points, on 3-16 shooting, and five rebounds in 30 minutes.
Maya Moore scored 28 points on 10-13 shooting, including six threes, and several drives to the basket. (So much for the criticism of her semifinal performance.) This was Moore as her finest, and clearly set her apart from nearly everyone in the country. At the time she left the floor, she had outscored the entire Louisville team on her own.
|Connecticut's Maya Moore goes up over Louisville's Keshia Hines and Angel McCaughtry during the second half of the Big East Conference women's tournament championship NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, March 10, 2009, in Hartford, Conn. Her outstanding finals performance brought her Big East Tournament MVP honors.|
Tina Charles, playing her best basketball of her career over the last three games, had 21 points and 15 boards. “I’m happy for Tina because she [finally] knows she has to play like this from here on in,” Coach Auriemma said of his oft-criticized center. “And she did that tonight.”
Auriemma later commented on the difference in the Charles we saw in this tournament from the Tina Charles of a year ago: “I think last year, Tina was hoping she would play well. You can’t be really good like that. You have to know you are going to play well. You have to act like you’re going to play well. I have a different feeling about her,” he continued. “She has a different aura about her. She has a different look in her eyes. . . Last year, Tina did things because she wanted to make someone else [like her coach] happy. This year, it’s coming from her; she plays like that because it makes her happy to be a great player.”
Connecticut has a week and a half before they will be chosen the Number One seed in the NCAA tournament. The expectations on this team are phenomenal, and perhaps unattainable.
“I know there is no way we can reach the expectation level that we’ve created,” Auriemma lamented. “It’s almost like we now have to play a game like this every night. It’s actually disrespectful to the other really good teams out there the way they [the media] have hyped us up. I don’t know how we can match the expectation level that’s out there.”
Asked about his reaction to UConn’s sixteenth Big East Tournament title and sixth undefeated regular season, Auriemma focused on his team. “I loved the way they celebrated tonight,” he said, smiling, “because they were not taking it for granted. The look on Renee Montgomery’s face when Kalana Greene made the All-Tournament team was special. Where else do you find a first-team All American, who didn’t make that [All- Tournament] team, out there losing her mind because her teammate did? That’s what I love about this team.”
UConn showed the nation that they are the best defensive team in the country, as well as the best offensive team. They just beat the Number 5/7 team in the country by 39 points. The Huskies never trailed in the Big East tournament. They have never trailed by more than six all year, and only for a total, in 33 games, of 45 minutes and 16 seconds, 16:53 of those minutes to Notre Dame.
“As much success as you have had this year,” Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked Coach Auriemma after the game, “ does it ever blow your mind when you look up a the scoreboard against the Number Five team in the country and you’re leading by 41?”
After an uncharacteristic silence, Auriemma replied, “It’s hard to have . . . I don’t know what the right emotions are when I see that. . . . As much as I complain [about the little things they do wrong],” he continued, “sometimes I watch them and I’m really pleased at how we make the game look for long stretches at a time. I never, ever imagined that this game would end like this.”
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT AWARDS
Most Outstanding Player: Maya Moore
All Tournament Team:
Kalana Greene, Connecticut
Tina Charles, Connecticut
Angel McCoughtry, Louisville
Candyce Bingham, Louisville
Shavonte Zellous, Pittsburgh