UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Junior guard Kitija Laksa is a psychology major with a 3.7 GPA at the University of South Florida. She is the 2018 American Athletic Conference Scholar-Athlete for women's basketball.
So if the two-time all-AAC first-team selection doesn't have the right mindset for the second-seeded Bulls heading into Tuesday's AAC tournament final against unbeaten and four-time defending conference champion Connecticut, no one has. USF has lost by 51 and 29 this season and is 0-25 against the top-seeded Huskies in the all-time series.
"You have to believe," Laksa said. "But that's how we prepare for every game. We play to win. With Connecticut, it's not going to be anything different. We're going out there to win. That's our mindset every day.
"Yes. We believe in that. Why? Why not? We're ready. This is our opportunity and we have to do it."
UConn and USF will meet in the tournament final for the fourth straight year following their semifinal wins Monday. Laksa had 20 points as the Bulls downed No. 3 Central Florida 74-59.
Meanwhile, the Huskies reached their 14th consecutive league final in historic fashion. UConn recorded its first shutout quarter in the three seasons since the NCAA went to the four 10-minute format and tied the school record for the fewest points allowed in a half as it routed No. 4 Cincinnati 75-21 before an announced crowd of 6,033 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Tuesday's final will tip off at 5 p.m. Though the Huskies (31-0) and Bulls (26-6) are NCAA tournament-bound, the winner receives the AAC's automatic bid to the 64-team event. A UConn win would likely wrap up the overall No. 1 seed, while an upset by USF could vault it into a top-16 overall seed, meaning it would hold the first round and second round at the Sun Dome in Tampa.
And any game with a championship on the line is meaningful.
"It's a lot of focus on our side of the game and what we need to do to execute and get into the best position to be successful," UConn guard Kia Nurse said. "Defensively, USF has a lot of players who are dynamic. Laksa does a lot for them and is a knock-down shooter. We'll need to keep her as quiet as possible."
Laksa was shut out in USF's loss to UConn in Tampa on Jan. 6, and did not get on the board in the rematch a week ago at Gampel Pavilion until the Bulls were down 20 in the second quarter.
"The focus is on our defense," UConn guard Crystal Dangerfield said. "If we can shut them down and get into our offense in transition, I think we'll have a good game."
In last year's final, Katie Lou Samuelson had a career-high 40 points and was a NCAA record 10-for-10 from 3-point land in a 100-44 victory.
There were no such fireworks from the Huskies on Monday night against Cincinnati, as they got their points across on the defensive end.
UConn pitched a second-quarter shutout, outscoring the Bearcats 26-0. The five first-half points it allowed matched the total the Huskies gave up to Fairleigh Dickinson (44-5) in the first half on Nov. 25, 2011. The Bearcats shot 13.8 percent from the floor and had more turnovers (14) than field goals (8).
"We did a good job of picking up our intensity and getting out in passing lanes, then covering for people when they tried to get to the basket," Nurse said.
While UConn was playing in its 30th straight league tournament semifinals, it was the first time Cincinnati had been that far since reaching the 2003 Conference USA championship game. And when Nikira Goings hit a 3-pointer with 5:20 gone, the Bearcats were down just 9-5.
Then UConn's defense took over and Cincinnati fell apart. After the Goings' hoop, the Bearcats missed their last 16 shots of the first half and committed nine turnovers. Meanwhile, UConn was efficient as usual on the offensive end.
When Samuelson beat the halftime buzzer on a layup, the score was 43-5. UConn's previous best quarter defensively came just nine days earlier at SMU when it held the Mustangs to a free throw with 13 seconds left in the second quarter to end a 43-0 run.
"We did a good job following the scout and knowing who did what on their team," Samuelson said. "Defense will be important for us as we go through the postseason so we're going to try and keep putting our best foot forward in each game and get better."
UConn's run eventually reached 38 before Shanice Johnson connected on a 3-pointer 1:23 into the third quarter.
Cincinnati did manage to avoid the lowest scoring total against the Huskies. UConn defeated Quinnipiac 117-20 on Dec. 27, 1998.
But while UConn coach Geno Auriemma enjoyed what he was seeing from his team on the defensive end, one look down the sidelines took some of that joy away. Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott was the second player in the Huskies' 1,000-1,000 club and part of their first national championship team in 1995. She was also an assistant to Auriemma for 14 seasons that included five national championships.
"It's no fun to be able ... You can't appreciate what that's like," Auriemma said. "We've been on that end a bunch of years ago where you can't get anything done in the game. It's not a happy place to be. You get frustrated and your kids get frustrated. Things that came easy yesterday or earlier in the week are suddenly not easy anymore. And when you're playing a team like ours and we're playing well ... We've done that to good teams for long stretches.
"Jamelle has a really good team. No disrespect to (USF coach) Jose (Fernandez), but they could have had co-Coach of the Year and she would have deserved it. To take her team from where they were to the semifinals, when she took the job in 2009 they were last in the league. She's done a phenomenal job and they'll be involved in postseason play. I'm happy for her in that respect."
Cincinnati is hoping to receive a WNIT bid.
Azura Stevens, starting for the injured Gabby Williams (hip), led the Huskies with 21 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. She was joined in double figures by Napheesa Collier (13), Samuelson (11) and Dangerfield (10). Samuelson and Collier had six and five assists, respectively, as both reached the 100 plateau for the season, joining Williams and Dangerfield in triple figures.
Williams had played in 142 consecutive games before sitting out Monday.
"Coach's decision," said Williams, who hopes to be available for Tuesday's final.
UConn will be seeking its 23rd conference tournament championship. USF will be seeking a milestone victory.
"It's a great opportunity to play them, always," Laksa said. "It's a privilege that we get to play them three times every year. Every time is a new opportunity. The last game is history. We're not looking back at anything. We'll learn from the mistakes that we've made and we're moving forward. We'll be ready to play them again with new emotions, new everything."