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UConn ready to raise the bar even higher in postseason

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UConn overcomes halftime deficit for 66th straight win (0:52)

Trailing 25-24 at halftime, Breanna Stewart and No. 1 Connecticut fight back and prevail for a 79-59 victory over South Florida. (0:52)

STORRS, Conn. -- Sometimes you make "to-do" lists not necessarily to be sure to not forget tasks but because you want the joy of crossing them off the list.

That's sort of where the UConn women's basketball team is now, as the calendar turns to March. In their regular-season finale Monday, the Huskies brushed aside a subpar first half -- after which they trailed South Florida by a point -- and turned on the jets in the third quarter.

UConn scored 32 points in 10 minutes, and that was that. The fourth quarter was a formality, with UConn prevailing 79-59 at Gampel Pavilion. But kudos to the Bulls -- the second-best team in the American Athletic Conference -- for playing well enough to keep the entire game from being a mere formality.

Now it's time for the great to somehow get greater. UConn coach Geno Auriemma knows this drill better than anyone, and he has three senior starters -- we're counting Morgan Tuck, even though she's technically in her redshirt junior year -- who know it well too.

The undefeated Huskies are like a standout Broadway troupe that has been doing the same show for a while. They have all their lines memorized and know every mark they must hit. So how, when you've been essentially nailing it again and again, do you still find another gear?

That's really the "secret" of championship teams, isn't it? Even when they appear to be at their best, there's somewhere else to climb.

"Back in the day, we used to say, there's regular-season Shea Ralph, and there's tournament Shea," Auriemma said of the former Huskies star and current UConn assistant coach who was the most outstanding player of the 2000 Women's Final Four. "And those are two different things. And we like to think that our team is the same way.

"I think you have to have a team that can get you through the regular season and put you in position to be a top seed, but then have a team that's capable of winning the tournament. And I think we do, obviously."

"We came out in that third quarter, and we were amazing. That's what we're going to need in the [conference] tournament next weekend and in the NCAA tournament."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma

As much as the Huskies are used to demanding excellence from themselves all season, they have become accustomed to refining their performances at the most important junctures.

"Everything changes at this time of the year for us," Auriemma said. "Practices change, focus changes, the intensity level changes. Our mindset changes. And actually, that was one of the things we talked about at halftime. That these are the things that, I hope, separate us from other teams. We came out in that third quarter, and we were amazing. That's what we're going to need in the tournament next weekend and in the NCAA tournament."

Next up is the American tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said he hopes his team gets another shot at the Huskies in the championship game next Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

The Bulls missed their top 3-point shooter, Kitija Laksa, who is out with an ankle injury. Their 25-24 halftime lead evaporated quickly in the third quarter in the face of UConn's offensive onslaught and effectiveness with a zone defense. (Never mind that Auriemma called his Huskies the "worst zone team in America" and suggested the strategy only worked because they played it so poorly that it confused the Bulls. That's Geno.)

Laksa, who has 70 3-pointers this season, might have been able to attack the zone somewhat more effectively. The Bulls will have to wait and see if she's ready for the American tournament -- or at least part of it.

Auriemma joked that he got his halftime message across to Kia Nurse in particular "by speaking Canadian" and to the rest of his team by reminding them they needed to be much sharper in the second half.

His north-of-the-border sophomore, Nurse, had just three points in the first two quarters, but she finished with 15. She is expected to be a key factor in UConn's postseason run because she is going to get open looks. There's no way opposing defenses can keep that from happening with all the weapons the Huskies have.

Which brings us to senior forward Breanna Stewart, who is in the standing ovation part of her career. She had a rough start shooting in Saturday's victory over Temple, explained perhaps by the lingering emotions of the Huskies' senior celebration before that game.

But her shot was off in the first two quarters Monday too, and Auriemma said she was perhaps pressing a bit, as the Huskies were in general.

"These guys are pretty prideful," he said. "They've won a lot of games. So when things don't go their way, they get a little bit like they want to try harder. And sometimes trying harder doesn't really get it done.

"So we changed a couple of things at halftime, stuff that we wanted to run that would slow it down a little for us and get us into much better rhythm and give her the ball in certain spots. And we just kept going back to it."

Stewart went from seven points on 3-of-12 shooting in the first half to 20 points on 10-of-13 accuracy in the second half. She exited the game with 2 minutes, 23 seconds left, and the crowd rose to its feet, just as it would with less than a minute left, when guard Moriah Jefferson headed to the bench.

"I think you have to have a team that can get you through the regular season and put you in position to be a top seed, but then have a team that's capable of winning the tournament. And I think we do, obviously."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma

The Huskies' faithful are well aware the curtain is coming down on this incredible senior class, and they have at most two more games -- in the NCAA first and second rounds -- to applaud them on their home court.

"You have to soak it in a little bit, realizing how appreciative these fans are," Stewart said. "And how much I appreciate them. You don't want to take any of that for granted. Senior night, I had to work hard to hold the emotions in, but it's something that should be celebrated.

"The next time we play here is going to be the NCAA tournament, and it's really winding down, the time we will play here in Gampel in front of these fans."

The Huskies will have Tuesday and Wednesday off from practice before they begin to prepare for the American tournament. But really, there are no true days "off" at this point.

Stewart said she will use the time for recovery, which is its own kind of work with the hot/cold tubs and massages. She'll try to get a bit more rest, but she said she doesn't intend to stay totally out of the gym. She and the other Huskies will get in a little shooting. As Tuck said, "You don't want to just sit on the couch for two days."

The Huskies' American tournament opener is Saturday, and they'll need three victories to cross the next thing off their list: the conference tournament championship.

The Huskies will keep their minds on that goal. Even if something else much bigger is in the back of their minds, of course.

"There are no guarantees that anybody is going to win this [NCAA] tournament," Auriemma said. "When it's one-and-done, all you need is one bad night. But I like the fact that up to this point, generally speaking, when we have to play great, we do.

"But that's like the guy selling you stocks, right? Past performance is no indication of future performance? So just because we've done it doesn't mean we're going to do it again. But I like our chances."