UNCASVILLE — UConn's Megan Walker stepped up to fill the scoring gap with the injured All-American Katie Lou Samuelson sitting out the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
Walker scored 24 points and Napheesa Collier added 23 points and 12 rebounds in an 81-45 rout of South Florida on Sunday that moved the Huskies into their sixth straight AAC championship game.
“Coach expects a lot out of me, because they (Collier and Samuelson) can't do it by themselves,” Walker said. “So, I'm just trying to step up and be that consistent factor for our team.”
Crystal Dangerfield added 11 points and Christyn Williams chipped in 10 for Connecticut (30-2), which was playing its third straight game without Samuelson, who suffered a back injury while diving for a loose ball just over a week ago.
“Life has to go on,” Collier said. “We have to be able to function without one of our best players. I think we are starting to get into the groove of that. I thought we did a really good job, especially today of moving the ball and kind of doing a little bit more than we were used to before.”
UConn, which reached 30 wins for its 14th consecutive season, shot 53 percent from the floor and never trailed. The Huskies will face UCF in Monday's AAC championship game.
Collier had six points in the Huskies’ opening 12-2 run. Her first 3-pointer of the game gave UConn a 25-7 lead and moved her past Samuelson into fourth place on the school's career scoring list.
Her second 3-pointer gave the Huskies their first 20-point lead at 33-11, part of a 12-0 run that blew the game open.
A jumper by Williams at the halftime buzzer gave the Huskies a 41-15 lead, and a steal and layup by Dangerfield gave the Huskies a 40-point advantage at 64-24 in the third quarter.
“Our defense kind of set the tone for everything that happened the rest of the game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We were really locked in, right from the beginning and that created a lot of opportunities for us on the other end.”
Sydni Harvey had 13 points and Alyssa Radar added 10 for USF (18-15), which shot just 26 percent from the floor (16 of 61) and fell to 0-29 against the Huskies.
“We never gave ourselves a chance,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said. “It wasn't just one thing. They were the much better team. We got beat today.”
South Florida: The Bulls have lost to UConn in five straight AAC tournaments, the previous four in the finals. They are 0-3 against the Huskies this season, including a 57-47 defeat at home on Monday.
UConn: The Huskies have been in a conference final every year since 2004, when they were part of the Big East. They are 12-2 in those championship games.
Auriemma said the injury to Samuelson may end up helping the team, because players such as Walker and freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa are becoming more assertive and taking on bigger roles.
“No one ever said they couldn't, they just didn't,” Auriemma said. “Now they have, so when we get Lou back, maybe now we have a more complete team.”
The Bulls’ injury issues make UConn's look minor in comparison. They lost leading scorer Kitija Laksa, a two-time All-AAC first-team selection, in their third game of the season to a right knee injury. Second-leading scorer Laura Ferreira was diagnosed with a heart ailment after 16 games. Redshirt freshman Silvia Serrat has sat out the entire season with a right knee injury and Beatriz Jordao, a 6-foot-3 freshman, who was averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, suffered a season-ending left leg injury on Jan. 3. Tamara Henshaw left this game in the third quarter and spent the rest of the game with an ice pack on her right knee.
South Florida: The Bulls may be in line for a WNIT or other postseason bid.
Radar said they want to keep playing.
“You're playing for something and that's always better,” she said. “If we get the opportunity to continue to play it's going to make us collectively know, ‘Hey we're playing for something.’ We want to win and we want to win big. That's what's driving us now.”
UConn: The Huskies will face UCF (25-5) after the Knights beat Cincinnati, 66-58, in the second semifinal on Sunday. The Huskies have won all 10 previous meetings between the programs.