By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — The road to a Big East regular season championship will take the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team to Tampa, Fla., and South Bend, Ind.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 19 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists Tuesday night as the third-ranked Huskies overcame a slow start to wallop hapless Pittsburgh 76-36 in Big East action before 9,428 at the XL Center.
“We’ve done pretty much all the things we’d set out to do as far as the Big East championship is concerned except win the Notre Dame game at home,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “The conference has been so difficult to win the last three or four years that you almost can’t afford to lose any games it seems like. This is certainly not the easiest way to finish the schedule at South Florida and at Notre Dame, two of the better teams in the league. But maybe that’s good, maybe that’s exactly what we need heading into the Big East tournament is two difficult road games.
“Certainly our younger guys are going to have to grow up quickly between now and Saturday and Monday.”
The Huskies (26-2 overall, 13-1 Big East) trail Notre Dame, which rallied from a double-digit first-half deficit to defeat Syracuse on its Senior Night Tuesday, by one game with two to go in the Big East race. The second-ranked Irish (26-1, 14-0) visit lowly Providence Saturday before heading home to host UConn Monday night. The Huskies have a stop in Tampa to face South Florida Saturday (noon, SNY) before traveling to South Bend.
USF, which lost at Rutgers Tuesday night to give C. Vivian Stringer her 900th career win, took Notre Dame to overtime at the Sun Dome in January before falling and beat Syracuse at home last Saturday.
“The challenge going there is the fact that they have a really, really good team,” Auriemma said. “They’re just playing really well and are getting contributions from more than one person. Last year, they were difficult to play against here. They’ve got a big kid that takes up a lot of space in the middle and they really shoot the ball well from the perimeter. Jose (USF coach Fernandez) has done a fabulous job with that team. The one positive is that we’re not going to be down there long enough to get sidetracked with being in Tampa. We’re getting there Friday night and leaving right after the game so we won’t even be there 24 hours.
“We want to hurry up and get out of Tampa so we can get to South Bend as quickly as possible.”
No one would blame Pittsburgh for wanting to get out of town here in a hurry.
UConn has won 28 straight over Pittsburgh over the last 20 years and the Panthers (9-18, 0-14) have not beaten UConn in Connecticut since Auriemma’s first season as coach in 1985-86. Pittsburgh has also lost 34 straight Big East regular season games, five short of the league record held by Providence (2003-06). UConn has lost a total of 34 Big East regular season games (379-34) since the start of the 1988-89 campaign.
“We try to teach our team to play the same way no matter who we have to play and it’s hard,” Auriemma said. “So we need some good leadership from the upperclassmen and it just carries over to everyone else.”
With Pittsburgh moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, Tuesday night’s contest may have been the last between the schools for a long time. You’ll hear no complaints from the Panthers’ camp.
Pittsburgh actually led 8-7 before reality set in. Ten straight points, including treys by Moriah Jefferson and Mosqueda-Lewis, put UConn in front. Mosqueda-Lewis then scored six points in a 16-0 run that broke it open. It was 37-13 at halftime and Pittsburgh got no closer than 20 the rest of the way.
Brianna Kiesel had 11 points for the Panthers.
“I thought the first nine minutes were pretty good and then we went into a drought and didn’t score,” Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato said.
Mosqueda-Lewis played the whole 40 minutes with Morgan Tuck and Caroline Doty complaining of knee soreness and Auriemma opting not to use Kiah Stokes off the bench.
“It’s never a bad thing to have Kaleena out on the floor,” Auriemma said.
Breanna Stewart added 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and four blocked shots for UConn while Stefanie Dolson chipped in 14 points. Kelly Faris had 11 points and nine rebounds and is now five rebounds shy of joining three-time Wade Trophy winner Maya Moore as the only UConn players to have 1,000 points, 750 rebounds, 500 assists, and 250 steals.
It was the second straight solid effort for Stewart since she played seven unproductive minutes against No. 1 Baylor. The freshman had 16 points and eight rebounds last Saturday against Seton Hall.
“I think I’m doing more and being more active,” Stewart said. “I’m not sure if anything triggered it. It’s just I didn’t want to be playing poorly anymore so I made the decision to go and change the way I was playing.”
She now hopes to take her momentum on the road. A Big East regular season championship may depend on it.