BRIDGEPORT— Saniya Chong seems to play her best when it matters most.
The senior point guard already has an impressive list of big-time shots in her four-year career with the Huskies, starting with a dagger 3-pointer to put last year’s game against Maryland at Madison Square Garden out of reach, a layup to take the lead in this year’s season opener at Florida State and another big shot against the Terrapins on the road a few months ago.
Chong kept that up Saturday afternoon in the No. 1 Huskies’ Sweet 16 game against No. 4 UCLA. While the fate of the game was never really in danger, Chong did her part to keep it that way with her strong start to the fourth quarter as part of an 86-71 victory for UConn (35-0) as the Huskies cruised to their 12th-straight Elite 8 appearance.
“Saniya made some big plays, big shots. She’s as good now as she can be. It’s at the perfect time in her career,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I mean, she’s a senior. Sometimes it never happens. I’m really thrilled for her that it’s happening. She deserves it. She’s hung in there.”
UCLA hung around for most of the second half and pulled within 12 for the first time after a 7-0 Bruins run made it 62-50 with 1:42 left in the third. Chong answered with a 3-pointer on the Huskies’ next possession.
After a bucket from Jordin Canada pulled UCLA within 13, Chong responded with a layup and then dished a pass off to Napheesa Collier two possession later to help UConn grow the lead to 17. Chong would finish the night with an NCAA-tournament career high of 16 points on on 4-6 shooting while adding five rebounds and three assists.
“It just happens when it happens,” Chong said of her knack for clutch shots. “Today I had the chances and opportunity with some open shots and to get into the lane so it really helped out my teammates…This is definitely one I’ll remember.”
Following her hot start in the fourth period, Chong once again helped fight off a late UCLA run. After the Bruins scored seven unanswered points to make it 76-63, Chong got up from a hard foul by Canada and drilled two free throws to stretch the lead to 15.
She’d tack on another pair of free throws down the stretch, scoring four of UConn’s last 10 points to secure a date with the No. 10 Oregon Ducks Monday night in Bridgeport regional final. Six of her 16 points came in the game’s final 10 minutes.
“I was just looking at the stat sheet. That’s probably more points tonight that she scored than in maybe the three previous NCAA tournaments combined,” Auriemma said. “That’s how little she played the last three years.”
Chong didn’t just contribute on the offensively. On defense, Chong held her own and repeatedly sealed off the player she was guarding for easy rebounds. She helped bring the ball up the court and navigate the Bruins’ full court press and zone defense.
“At times it seemed like she was the only person we could really trust with the ball. She was able to penetrate the zone, which is what you have to do against a team like that. She handled their full-court pressure,” UConn forward Gabby Williams said of Chong. “I was really impressed with how she did on the glass. She was boxing out guys that were a lot bigger than her.”
Knowing that her up-and-down four-year career at UConn could end at any moment, Chong is looking to do anything possible to keep playing and finish her career on top.
“This is definitely one I’ll remember. In the past years, I didn’t exactly play 37 minutes so it was really great to actually be out there and be on the court and help my teammates out,” Chong said.
The feeling is mutual for Auriemma, who knows that while Chong won’t be the one carrying the team night in and night out, she plays a major role in the team’s success.
As it stands, Chong has tied the trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck for the most wins in a four-year span with 151. The only difference? Chong has one loss in four seasons while the 2016 senior class had five, and could hit win No. 152 against the Ducks Monday night.
“Today, the effort and play of Saniya, I thought it was the difference in the game,” Auriemma said.