Tuck, Jefferson give UConn plenty in reserve

By Carl Adamec

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It’s not just about winning for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, but how it wins.

The third-ranked Huskies’ 65-45 Big East victory over Rutgers before 5,378 at the Rutgers Athletic Center Saturday won’t go down as an instant classic, but they were happy to head home with the “W” with defending national champion and No. 1 Baylor next Monday night.

“It was the kind of game we always seem to have here,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Starting the way we did, but then finishing the way we finished bodes well for us. We made enough plays to win. I’m not thrilled with the way we played but I’m happy to get the win.”

Freshman Morgan Tuck came off the bench to score 15 points as UConn overcame an early 10-point deficit to defeat Rutgers for the 10th straight time and deny Scarlet Knights’ coach C. Vivian Stringer her 900th career win in her second bid to reach the milestone.

UConn (24-1 overall, 11-1 Big East) will take a 12-game winning streak into its contest with Baylor (24-1), which routed TCU on Saturday. Game time Monday at the XL Center in Hartford is 9 p.m.

“The Big East thinks that were Superman, that we can play at Rutgers Saturday and then have Baylor on Monday because we’re just better than everybody else and we can handle that,” Auriemma said. “Notre Dame had Providence at home before their game with Tennessee, so we’re held to a higher standard than everyone else. We just got to do what we’ve got to do. This isn’t an easy place to play under any circumstances, especially when you have a Saturday-Monday like we have now. It does take a lot out of you. But that’s what happens in the NCAA tournament as well.”

With Rutgers scheduled to leave for the Big Ten in 2014-15, the Huskies’ visit here Saturday may have been their last for a league game. If so, they finish 10-4 here.

It was quite a journey.

With his team trailing 10-4 at the first television time out 4:26 in, Auriemma benched starters Caroline Doty, Bria Hartley, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Kelly Faris (all but Stefanie Dolson) and replaced them with Tuck, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Kiah Stokes. Doty returned about three minutes later and Faris four minutes after that. Dolson then picked
up her third foul. Mosqueda-Lewis came in with 5:29 left in the half.

Hartley never returned, though Auriemma said it was because she was not feeling well.

“We had a game plan going in and one of the things that we wanted to make sure we didn’t do was put Rutgers on the free throw line unnecessarily,” Auriemma said. “I thought that all we did right those first four minutes was foul. I don’t think we accomplished anything else. We didn’t run offense, we didn’t play defense, we didn’t do anything. The only thing we did well was foul. I figured the next group couldn’t do any worse and they did better.”

Rutgers led 14-4 before the Huskies got going. It was 18-12 when UConn scored 10 unanswered points to take its first lead. Doty hit a 3-pointer and Jefferson followed with a steal and layup. Stewart’s jumper put the Huskies ahead and Jefferson’s steal and ensuing three-point play made it 22-18.

“I was watching and thinking, ‘C’mon guys, we can get this together,’ ” Jefferson said. “I knew we could pull it out. We just had to slow down and keep our composure. I wanted to get some steals so we could get out in transition. I knew if we could get in transition and get some shots for Kaleena and get the ball into the post to Stef that would help us a lot.”

Mosqueda-Lewis’ trey with 0:08 left gave UConn a 33-27 halftime lead.

The Huskies then took charge right for the start of the second half as two free throws by Dolson, a 3-pointer by Mosqueda-Lewis and a hoop by Dolson pushed the lead into double figures. Ahead 49-38, baskets by Jefferson and Dolson started an 8-0 run that iced it.

Jefferson played 30 minutes and finished with 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals, and no turnovers. Tuck played 26 minutes. The Bolingbrook, Ill., native was 5-for-7 from the floor and hit all four of her free throws. She also had five rebounds.

“We have to come in and make an impact and that’s what we tried to do,” Tuck said.

“Moriah came in and got a couple of steals and Tuck rebounded the ball well,” Dolson added. “I was proud of the way they stepped up and played their hearts out.”

Dolson finished with 14 points and Mosqueda-Lewis 12 for UConn. Doty, wearing a smaller brace than usual on her surgically repaired left knee, had five assists and three steals. The Huskies had 14 fast-break points to none for Rutgers.

Shakena Richardson had 10 points for the Scarlet Knights (14-10, 5-6). Rutgers was without fifth-year senior forward Chelsey Lee, who injured her knee earlier in the week.

Stringer was trying to become the fourth coach to win 900 and the first to reach the plateau on her home floor.

Tennessee’s Pat Summitt was the first to 900 with an 80-68 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2006. Texas’ Jody Conradt got her 900th and final win when the Longhorns topped Missouri 70-57 in the first round of the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City on March 6, 2007. North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell reached the milestone on Feb. 7 when the Tar Heels walloped hapless Boston College 80-52 at Conte Forum.

Stringer was denied in her first bid for 900 when DePaul defeated Rutgers 60-57 last Tuesday in Chicago. But of the three coaches that have 900 wins, only Summitt got it on her first try. Texas lost to Texas A&M 67-60 a week before Conradt got her milestone win while North Carolina was routed by Duke 84-63 in Hatchell’s first attempt Feb. 3 in Chapel Hill.

Rutgers will try again Tuesday at Syracuse.