Strong stretch drive gets UConn past St. John’s

By Carl Adamec

NEW YORK — Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kelly Faris wouldn’t let the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team lose Saturday.

Mosqueda-Lewis and Faris scored all the points in a decisive second-half run as the third-ranked Huskies came from behind to defeat Big East foe St. John’s 71-65 for their eighth straight win before a crowd of 2,158 at Carnesecca Arena.

“We made a concerted effort to get Kaleena more involved and I have to make sure we get her even more involved,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Kelly was her own worst enemy in the first half. She didn’t look to shoot the ball, she didn’t have a rebound, I didn’t know what she was trying to do in the first half.

“But those two players know what it is that we expect from them. Sometimes they forget and sometimes we have to orchestrate it for them. Late in the game, we did.”

Mosqueda-Lewis finished with her first double-double of the season and second of her career as she had team highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds. Faris had 13 of her 17 points in the second half.

UConn (20-1 overall, 7-1 Big East) reached the 20-win plateau for the 20th straight win.

But St. John’s (10-10, 4-4) attempted to pull its second upset of the Huskies in 12 months. It was tied at 35 at halftime and the Red Storm led by as many as six in the second half.

Down 53-52, Faris’ 3-point basket with 6:07 left put UConn in front. A conventional three-point play by Mosqueda-Lewis gave UConn a lead it wouldn’t relinquish at 60-57 with 4:19 remaining. A trey by Faris made it 67-60 with 1:40 to go. Bria Hartley and Kiah Stokes hit two free throws each to ice it.

“It’s good to know that we have the capability of doing what we did in those last few minutes,” Faris said. “But when you look at the whole scheme of things it’s going to be a disappointing win. We’re not about, ‘Yeah, we won and that’s great.’ It’s all about how we won. We have to get in our minds once we do things the way we practice it and the way we know how we’re supposed to do it, we’ll get stuff accomplished.

“Coming out in the second half I definitely had a different mindset and especially toward the end of the game. I was trying to get Kaleena the ball as much as possible because she was dominating. But they’re going to catch on to it and they did. I got a wide open three, I think off a screen from Morgan Tuck, so there were a lot of people that stepped up and did some little things that made a difference.”

UConn was without center Stefanie Dolson, who fell ill Saturday morning and missed the first game of her career. Sophomore Stokes made her first career start and had seven points, four rebounds, and two blocked shots in 15 minutes. Reserve guard Brianna Banks suffered a sprained right knee midway through the first half and did not return. Auriemma said he would have more information about the injury late Saturday or early Sunday.

Shenneika Smith led St. John’s with 21 points. Aliyyah Handford added 17 and Briana Brown 16.

“There’s no solace to a loss,” St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said. “But we as a staff were happy with the way we played. It was the hardest I’ve seen them play all year.”

In the first regular season meeting between the teams since St. John’s ended UConn’s NCAA record 99-game home winning streak at Gampel Pavilion a year ago, the Red Storm led by as many as five early. UConn didn’t take its first lead until Banks’ layup made it 18-17. Five points by Tuck put UConn ahead 32-24 but the Red Storm closed the half with an 11-3 run to get even at the break.

Handford’s jumper gave the Red Storm a 45-39 lead with 15:44 to go and it was 51-46 after a Brown basket with 11:34 left.

But UConn raised its game in the final 7:00 in winning for the 12th straight time at Carnesecca Arena/Alumni Hall dating back to a Jan. 6, 1993 loss when the St. John’s women’s team was known as the Express.

“That’s something we can really build on. That’s something to be really proud of,” Auriemma said. “When we needed to get a certain shot we got it. When we needed to get people the ball where they needed to have it, they got it.

“Even if you’re up a bunch and try to execute something, it’s easy because if the shot doesn’t go in it doesn’t matter. So when you’re put in a situation like this … Those threes that Kelly made, you have to make them. And you have to make free throws when it’s a three-point game with 3:00 left. The more times we’re in that situation the more confident you can become. It’s tough to orchestrate it in a real game, not that I’m trying to do that either. I’m not anxious to have a lot of them. But today was a good opportunity for us and we came out of it pretty well.”

The Huskies return to Gampel Pavilion Tuesday to take on Marquette (7 p.m., SNY). UConn defeated the Golden Eagles 85-51 in Milwaukee on Jan. 12.