No. 2 Connecticut women rout Oklahoma 73-55
NORMAN, Okla.—The road to an outright conference title unexpectedly opened for coach Geno Auriemma and No. 2 Connecticut. First, there was some non-Big East business to handle.
Tiffany Hayes scored 23 points, Bria Hartley added 20 and the Huskies beat Oklahoma 73-55 on Monday night for their 12th straight victory.
It was the final nonconference test for Connecticut (24-2) before a final four-game run that will decide the Big East title, which could come down to a Feb. 27 game against No. 4 Notre Dame in Hartford, Conn.
The teams are tied for the conference lead at 11-1 after the Irish were upset by West Virginia on Sunday.
"The No. 1 goal always, every year is to win the regular season championship. ... In order for us to do that, we have to win every game," Auriemma said. "So, we've kind of been in a playoff mode every game since we played at South Bend. So, that doesn't change anything for us."
The Huskies never trailed on their way to moving to 10-0 all-time in the series, which had become an annual tradition around Valentine's Day but is set to end after this meeting.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson contributed 10 points apiece, and Connecticut appeared ready to run away with it in the first 7 minutes before withstanding a series of rallies by Oklahoma (16-8).
"We kept our heads," Hayes said. "We'd just come down, just run our stuff, not let them make us go too fast and I think that's what helped us out."
Whitney Hand scored 18 points while playing 40 minutes but she was the only one of the Sooners who could score with regularity against the nation's top defense.
"It's never OK -- never OK -- to lose on your home floor but I am proud of the growth that I saw," coach Sherri Coale said. "We found some passion and we found some fighters."
Aaryn Ellenberg, once the Sooners' most dangerous scorer, continued a prolonged slump by missing eight of her first nine shots. She has shot 16 for 75 (21 percent) over the last seven games -- a stretch that has included two games against top-ranked Baylor and this one against an even more stingy defense.
The Huskies came in allowing opponents to shoot only 29.6 percent and average 44.4 points.
Oklahoma exceeded both of those marks but still made only 34.5 percent and never could dig all the way out of an early 17-point deficit. The Sooners were 3 for 14 from 3-point range and are 24 for 105 (23 percent) over the same seven-game stretch.
"We've got to get that 3 element back in our offense. We have to," Coale said. "It's such a piece of our identity."
It was 19-4 before two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant even made it to his seat near courtside, just over 7 minutes into the first half. Dolson scored with her left hand under the basket soon after to make it a 17-point lead with 11:57 to go before halftime, and the Huskies seemed to be on their way to duplicating last season's 41-point blowout last season in Hartford.
Hand scored the next seven points in what would become an 11-0 run, and the Sooners quickly got themselves into the bonus by drawing three fouls against Mosqueda-Lewis in an 82-second span.
Jelena Cerina's layup in the final minute of the first half got Oklahoma within 33-28 before Connecticut scored the final four points before halftime.
"They play a style of play that if you're not careful, you get into a crazed state -- running up and down, bodies flying all over the place," Auriemma said. "It seemed like every time down the floor, there was a body sprawled out and it was a foul on us. Everything that happened was a foul on us."
Hayes had two layups, stealing an outlet pass in between, to spark a string of eight straight points that restored Connecticut's lead to 45-30 in the first 3 minutes after halftime.
After that, the Huskies merely kept the Sooners at arm's length.
Mosqueda-Lewis turned away an Oklahoma comeback bid by hitting consecutive jumpers before Hayes' fastbreak layup pushed the lead to 51-35 with 13:10 remaining. The Sooners again got within single digits with a run of seven straight points finished by Hand's free throws with just under 6 minutes left, only to have the Huskies answer it a few moments later.
Dolson scored from the right block, Mosqueda-Lewis hit a 3-pointer and Hartley converted a fastbreak layup to draw a timeout from Coale. Many in the crowd of nearly 6,300 drawn for the annual "Pack the Place Pink" breast cancer awareness game headed out with 2:16 remaining and Connecticut leading 66-50.
Next up for the Huskies is a return to Big East play with a home game against St. John's, then trips to Pittsburgh and Marquette before the showdown with Notre Dame.
"You always want to win a championship that's available, and we have the opportunity to do that," Auriemma said, "but there's some other things that we've got to do before we do that."