No. 9 Connecticut 71, Marist 45
STORRS, Conn. (AP)—An all-guard lineup for Connecticut in the second half Saturday gave the Huskies speed, scoring and another game in the WNIT.
Mel Thomas scored a career-high 23 points to lead the ninth-ranked Huskies to a season-opening 71-45 victory over Marist in the first round. The sophomore guard was making her fifth start and provided a spark in the second half after the Red Foxes had played UConn close.
“We were able to get after it on defense and we could push the ball up the court,” Thomas said. “I just think we played a lot better defense. We have to come after it every single night and if we don’t, we’re not going to look good at all, like we did in the first half.”
After Marist outrebounded UConn 22-19 in the first half, coach Geno Auriemma spread his offense in the second half with all guards to neutralize the Red Foxes’ post play and disrupt their deliberate offense.
Thomas quickly found her groove.
She finished 7-of-11 from the field, hit four 3-pointers and three steals. She and sophomore backcourtmate Ketia Swanier fueled the Huskies’ uptempo game. The speedy Swanier finished with seven assists and eight rebounds. Both played with a confidence often missing last season in their rookie year.
“(Ketia) controlled the whole game in the second half and didn’t turn the ball over,” Auriemma said. “She’s changed dramatically and as a result our team’s going to change. If your guards are confident and are quick and aggressive, you can go out and play like that. It was everything we weren’t last year.”
UConn held Marist to four field goals—all 3-pointers—in the first 19 minutes of the second half and outrebounded the Red Foxes 20-10 in the period.
The five-time national champs are coming off a 25-8 season that ended with a loss to Stanford in the NCAA regional semifinals, snapping a 20-game tournament win streak that included three straight NCAA crowns.
UConn will play Indiana State, which beat Chattanooga 74-53, in the second round on Monday. The Huskies are making their third appearance in the WNIT and have won the title twice (1997, 2001).
Ann Strother added 20 points for the Huskies on 9-of-14 shooting and had seven rebounds. Freshman Kalana Greene had 14 points and two blocked shots. Strother also benefited from the faster tempo in the second half.
“We really made an effort to go to the basket and be more aggressive,” Strother said.
Fifi Camara led Marist with 12 points and seven rebounds, while Meg Dahlman added 10 points.
The Huskies could not find that one big, early run and the Red Foxes stayed close throughout the first half. UConn led by as many as nine points in the first 10 minutes, but the Red Foxes whittled the lead to 21-20 when Nikki Flores hit a 3-pointer with 2:26 left.
Strother and Greene scored to extend the lead to 25-20. But Dahlman, Marist’s tallest player at 6-foot-3, hit consecutive baskets in the final 46 seconds and UConn led 27-24 at halftime.
UConn opened the second half with a 14-6 run that included two 3s by Thomas and the Red Foxes never recovered.
“Once (Auriemma) found that lineup we didn’t have an answer,” Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. “They were UConn in the second half.”