STORRS — Senior point guard Renee Montgomery saved the best for last, turning in her best-ever NCAA Tournament performance in her final game at Gampel Pavilion.
Montgomery’s 25 points led top-seeded UConn to an 87-59 win over Florida in a second-round NCAA Tournament game in front of a packed house at Gampel Pavilion Tuesday night. [March 24]
The women earn a berth in the Sweet 16 for the 16th consecutive season, taking on 4th-seeded California in a regional contest at Trenton, NJ this Sunday.
When Renee wasn’t hitting one of her 5 three-pointers, she was slashing through the toothless Gator defense, getting to the line 10 times.
The Huskies’ floor leader said she often feeds off the energy of the friendly home crowd.
“It means a lot to hear the fans cheering for us, especially the student section which has been getting bigger and bigger each year since my freshman season,” she said. “The UConn fans make you feel special to play here. One Vermont player came up to me [during Sunday's first-round game] and said, ‘Your fans here are awesome.’”
Montgomery knew going into the game that she would be pitted against her mirror image in the person of Florida’s versatile floor general Sha Brooks, but that scenario failed to develop due to early foul trouble by the Gators’ leader, who ended up playing only four minutes during the entire first half.
With 12:42 to play in the first half, Florida seemingly had – if not the answer, at least an answer – for staying close to UConn, trailing only 12-7. But suddenly the question changed, quickly morphing into whether the Gators could sustain their early-on efforts, now that their best player was unceremoniously relegated to the bench with her third personal foul – and more than three quarters to play.
The answer was a resounding “No!”
Over the next eight minutes of play, the Huskies extended their lead to 39-20, when Tina Charles laid in an “and-one” to punctuate a possession that featured fully four offensive rebounds by UConn.
More good stuff from Tina Charles
“Offensive rebounds are so important, they just get our confidence going,” said Maya Moore, who had 22 points – a total matched by Charles, who turned in her second strong game of the tournament.
“I’ve been saying all along that if Tina Charles plays like the best player in the country, no one is going to beat us,” said head coach Geno Auriemma. “And so far, we’re 2-0 with her playing like that.”
Auriemma had warned his players that Florida “was a very physical team” and Montgomery credits some coaching tips for helping her get Brooks into potentially game-changing foul trouble very early on.
“The coaching staff said she [Brooks] likes to be aggressive on offense and if I needed to, I should take a step back and let her come to me,” said Montgomery.
That strategy paid off with a couple of quick charging fouls against the Florida floor leader, who then had no choice but to try to cheer on her team from the bench for most of the first half.
Florida coach Amanda Butler called the early fouls on her star player “frustrating.”
“That certainly diminished our chances,” she said.
The Gators probably would have preferred battling a swamp full of crocodiles rather than taking on the Huskies in Storrs.
UConn women set the standard
“This was a very tough draw for us, very challenging,” Butler said. “But then it’s a great experience to play against the team that sets the standard for women’s basketball.”
With the Huskies idle while awaiting play in the Trenton Regional, perhaps Coach Geno Auriemma will allow himself a few minutes to sit back and enjoy his second consecutive Coach of the Year award from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
Auriemma is the only Division I head coach to receive this award two years in a row.
“Anytime that happens, you feel you must be doing something this year that is pretty significant,” said the Hall-of-Fame coach who has his 35-0 team on the verge of greatness.
He credited his coaching staff (Chris Dailey, Jamelle Elliott and Shea Ralph) who, having gained experience and maturity on the job, now are more willing to offer suggestions and innovations that all funnel into the collective success of the team.
“As the staff gets older, they feel freer to express their feelings and I think that’s why we’ve become a better team,” Auriemma said.
Posted March 25, 2009