BRIDGEPORT— For the ninth-straight time, the UConn women’s basketball team is heading to the Final Four.
After record-setting 60-point win over Mississippi State in the Sweet 16 and speculation from a certain Boston Globe columnist about whether UConn’s dominance is bad for the sport, the Huskies had a much tougher time with No. 2 Texas before an 86-65 victory at Webster Bank Arena in the Bridgeport regional final.
“It means a lot. This is a big part of us reaching our goal, and we have to go to the Final Four to do that,” UConn forward Morgan Tuck said. “So I think that as a team, we're just really excited to be able to go and enjoy the Final Four and then, hopefully, win two games.”
With their mind set on their year-long quest for a fourth-straight national championship, the trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Tuck set the pace from the start for the Huskies as the trio scored the team’s first 12 points to jump out to an early 12-6 lead.
The three players would go on to score 53 points in the victory, with Tuck leading the way with 22 points. In their final collegiate game in the Nutmeg state, Stewart tallied 21 points, 13 rebounds and five assists while Jefferson had 11 points and nine assists.
“They have a confidence level from the experiences that they have had that's unique,” Texas head coach Karen Aston said of Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck. “And then you can't deny that they're talented. I don't want to take that away from them also, that they're extremely talented. But they also have that level of experience that takes them probably mentally to a different place.”
Stewart’s double-double marked the eighth time the senior forward has accomplished the feat in the NCAA tournament, tying her with Maya Moore for the most postseason double-doubles in program history. Jefferson’s nine assists were an NCAA tournament career-high and leaves her with 647, one shy of Diana Taurasi’s program record of 648.
Tuck and Jefferson were named to the Bridgeport region’s all-tournament team, and Stewart was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player. Texas’ Lashann Higgs and Ariel Atkins scored 19 points a piece for the Longhorns and joined the UConn trio on the all-tournament team.
UConn would stretch its first quarter lead to as much as 11 before an 11-2 run from the Longhorns made it a two-point game with the Huskies up 19-17 with 1:18 remaining thanks to 10 points from Atkins. A jumper from Stewart and a free throw from Gabby Williams allowed UConn to lead by five after the first 10 minutes.
“Yeah, I mean, when they were pushing it, and they were really attacking us, I think we got up 17-6 or, I don't know, maybe we got up eight or nine early, and then they came right back and knocked in some shots,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of the Longhorns’ first quarter.
While the upperclassmen got things started early for the Huskies, it was the freshman tandem of Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier that helped UConn pull away in the second quarter. Collier scored seven points over the final 3:16 of the first half, and Samuelson chipped in with a three after struggling on the defensive end in the beginning as UConn finished the half on a 12-5 run to lead 46-31.
“A lot of times when you're a freshman that's the first time that it hits you. That this isn't January, and we're going to go to practice and work on this,” Auriemma said. “But the really good ones, they regroup, and they summon up whatever they have to summon up to be good. Lou and Napheesa are terrific talents, and they're tough kids, and I think what they did today is going to be great for them for next weekend.”
The Huskies would bury the Longhorns with a furious start to the second half, as back-to-back 3-pointers from Samuelson and Jefferson to open the third quarter helped the UConn lead balloon to 21.
Texas showed signs of life by cutting the lead to 12 one three-straight threes, but the Huskies were able to answer back and lead by 19 after three periods of play. Ten minutes later, UConn officially punched its ticket to their 17th Final Four appearance in program history and set an NCAA record with 22-straight NCAA tournament wins.
“We're really excited to go to the Final Four,” Stewart said. “I think that any time you go, it's a lot of fun, there's a lot going on… coach is talking about this is our last trip with this team. Last time to be with this team. And I think we're just going to enjoy it. Especially as seniors. Last time it's going to be like this.”