UConn flattens S. Florida in Big East tourney opener

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut watched as No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Tennessee lost in their conference tournaments on Saturday.

The No. 3 Huskies then went out Sunday and opened their Big East tournament with a 74-54 quarterfinal blowout win over South Florida.

"It's a fine line between scaring them and saying, 'Hey, this could happen to us," said head coach Geno Auriemma "You don't want to put that thought in their head. You just gotta know that you have to earn the right to play the next day in March."

UConn (28-2) got double-doubles from junior forward Charde Houston, who scored 19 points and pulled down 11 rebounds and freshman center Tina Charles (18 and 10) to earn the right to play No. 20 Louisville in the semifinals on Monday.

The Cardinals beat West Virginia 68-56 earlier in the day.

The Huskies opened slowly. South Florida hit just four of its first 14 shots, but the game was tied 10-10 thanks in part to a technical foul on UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

UConn then went on a 13-0 run capped by a Houston layup that made it 23-10 with less than 9 minutes to go before intermission.

"They were missing some shots and we were capitalizing on the other end," said UConn guard Renee Montgomery. "As long as we can sustain a run for a long period of time, we should be all right."

Montgomery had 10 points and six assists for Connecticut. Kalana Greene chipped in 11 points.

Jessica Dickson led South Florida with 18 points. ChiChi Okpaleke and Nalini Miller each added 10, but Miller, the Bulls center, fouled out with 7:41 remaining.

"Miller fouling out was definitely crucial," said Dickson. "Coach Fernandez told me to be more aggressive and drive to the hole. I think that's what I took upon myself to do being that Miller was out."

Dickson had just 11 points in the Bulls' 81-68 loss to UConn in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 20, but had 10 by halftime in this one. The Bulls scored six consecutive points to end the half, but still trailed 36-24.

UConn stretched the lead to 49-28 early in the second half and cruised from there.

"They came out of the locker room with extreme energy," said South Florida coach Jose Fernandez. "They're playing really well."

The Huskies shot 52 percent from the field, and held the Bulls to 31 percent shooting.

Charles, who scored 34 against South Florida in the earlier meeting, was 8-of-11 from the field Sunday. Houston was nine of 15, and the Huskies outrebounded South Florida 45-34.

Connecticut finished the regular season 16-0 in the Big East, winning its conference games by an average of 25 points.

"This is just different," Houston said. "We can't come in overconfident and expecting [Louisville] to roll over and for us to win by 25 points just because we're UConn."

The top seed has not won the tournament since 2002 when UConn won the national title with a 39-0 record. That also was the last year anyone won both the regular-season and Big East tournament titles in the same season.

"I don't think we have anybody or certainly as many players walking around our locker room like, 'Everybody else in the country is playing for second place,' like we used to," Auriemma said. "This group is still approaching it like, 'Yeah, we think we're pretty good.' But they are not quite sure exactly how good. I think they are anxious to find out."

South Florida, which beat Seton Hall in the first round, ends its season at 20-11, and must wait to see if it has done enough to secure an NCAA berth.

"We're 20-11 with a 32 RPI, so I don't see how we wouldn't get in the NCAA Tournament," said Fernandez.