INDIANAPOLIS — Here are three thoughts following No. 1 UConn’s 80–51 win over No. 2 Oregon State in the national semifinal game. UConn’s 29-point margin of victory was the second largest in a game in women’s Final Four history and the largest margin in a national semifinal game:
1. With Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson annual members of the nation’s All-America team, as well as frequent winners of other awards—Stewart repeated as the Wade Trophy winner and earned her third straight Associated Press Player of the Year award this weekend while Jefferson was once again awarded the Nancy Lieberman Award, as the nation’s best point guard—Morgan Tuck is the least heralded member of UConn’s gilded Big Three. But Tuck was the key player on the court Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The redshirt junior forward finished with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including four three-pointers, but it was her first-half shooting (she had 16 first-half points) that buried Oregon State. Tuck hit four of her first five shots and her three-pointer with 4:33 left in the first half put UConn up 37–24. There are shots that feel bigger because of score and time and that three-pointer felt like a dagger for the Beavers. It was an All-America performance from a player who rightfully earned first-team All-America honors this year.
“Stats don’t really mean anything,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said after the game. “If you look at our cumulative stats from our season and go, all right, Tuck is shooting 30% or 27%, whatever the number is. About a month ago, she’s shooting whatever from the three-point line. Now go look at the top-10 teams we played this year and check out her three-point shooting percentage. It’s completely different.
“So going into today’s game I wasn’t thinking how has Tuck been shooting the ball,” Auriemma continued. “I just know when we play big games, they go in. So at practice two weeks ago I just spent some time saying, ‘Tuck, if you’re going to shoot those, you’ve got to make them.’ She has a great answer: ‘I know.’ That’s it. I know. And she would just stand there and knock them in one after another after another. I could tell, when we left Connecticut, the bigger the game, the more she makes. She and Stewy are a lot alike in that regard. They make shots, but then in big games they make a lot of shots. And they make big shots. And I’m not surprised. Let’s hope she has one more of them.”
2. Who could have predicted UConn’s bench would star in a Final Four semifinal? Well, sophomore forward Gabby Williams and freshman forward Napheesa Collier gave UConn exceptional minutes, especially in the first half. Williams scored six points (in just six minutes of court time) in the first 20 minutes while Collier was a defensive force with two blocks in the opening half. Most impressively, with UConn leading 47–26 with 33 seconds left in the half, Collier stole the ball from Oregon State sophomore center Marie Gulich under UConn’s basket, then had the ball stolen back by Oregon State’s All-America guard Jamie Weisner. But rather than give up on the play with a 21-point lead, Collier immediately went into a defensive posture and bothered Weisner enough to force a bad shot. Collier played until the horn, which all of Auriemma’s great teams do no matter the score or lead. UConn’s bench finished with 17 points, including eight points and five rebounds from Williams and six points and two blocks from Collier.
3. Normally you wouldn’t heap praise on a player who had as many points (two) as fouls at halftime, but Stewart played an incredibly smart first half after picking up her second foul with 7:55 left in the first quarter and UConn up 15–6. First, Aureimma helped her out by playing zone over the next couple of possessions, then switching her to Oregon State senior forward Devin Hunter, where Stewart was far less prone to pick up her third foul after starting the game on Oregon State’s 6'6" center Ruth Hamblin, the rare player taller than the 6'4" Stewart. Knowing she could not pick up her third foul, Stewart spent the rest of the first half as a ball distributor, deflecting loose balls in the lane on defense and picking her spots to be aggressive. She had a huge bock on Hamblin with 7:03 and UConn up 28–19, gambling from behind to block Hamblin’s shot cleanly as she released. Stewart did not score her first basket of the game until 3:01 left in the second quarter, but her intelligent play kept Auriemma with plenty of options and prevented Oregon State from doubling on the hot-shooting Tuck. Stewart heated up in the second half and finished with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and eight rebounds.
“I was frustrated with myself that I picked up two quick fouls,” Stewart said. “But I was trying to continue to play. You don’t want to foul out of the game. You have to be smart but still be aggressive, but not overly aggressive. And I was just trying to do whatever I could.”
UConn will face the winner of No. 4 Syracuse and No. 7 Washington in the national championship game on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.