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Chong Delivers Memorable Performance As UConn Beats UCLA, Reaches Elite Eight (By Rich Elliott)

POSTED March 26, 2017
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By Rich Elliott

BRIDGEPORT – The finality is real for UConn senior Saniya Chong. Her college career consists of only a precious few days at this point.

It is a situation that Chong is embracing. It is something that is driving her to capitalize on each opportunity she has remaining with the top-ranked Huskies.

Chong has had memorable individual performances in the past. She scored a career-high 20 points at Stanford as a sophomore. She did it against South Florida this season. She also had 16 points and five assists at Florida State back in November.

However, none of these performances came during the NCAA tournament. Until Saturday. Chong delivered 16 points, five rebounds and three assists in 38 minutes to help lead UConn to an 86-71 victory over fourth-seeded UCLA in the Bridgeport regional semifinals before a sellout crowd of 8,830 at Webster Bank Arena.

``The effort and play of Saniya, I thought it was the difference in the game,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``You know what you’re going to get from those other guys. They did what they always do, for the most part. 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. 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.’’

The Huskies (35-0) extended its record winning streak to 110 games. They have advanced to the Elite Eight for the 12th straight season – 23rd overall – and will meet 10th-seeded Oregon (23-13) in the regional final Monday (7 p.m.; ESPN).

Behind 21 points, six rebounds and seven assists from freshman Sabrina Ionescu, the Ducks defeated third-seeded Maryland 77-63 Saturday. Freshman Ruthy Hebard added 16 points and eight rebounds as Oregon reached the Elite Eight for the first time.

Lamar (No. 10, 1991) and Gonzaga (No. 11, 2011) are the only other double-digit seeds to advance to the regional final. Oregon coach Kelly Graves previously coached at Gonzaga.

``We've been watching them the whole tournament,’’ UConn junior Gabby Williams said. ``We’ve been watching everybody. So it’s the same thing. They're here for a reason. Right now they’re a really good team, obviously. They’re a lot similar to UCLA in that they have really good perimeter players. They’re really good on the glass. We’re just going to have to go in with kind of a similar game plan, I think.’’

Entering play Saturday, Chong had scored a total of 41 points in 194 minutes over 19 career games in the NCAA tournament. She had accounted for just six points in 40 minutes in 11 games after the first two rounds.  

Chong had six points alone in the third quarter against UCLA.

``This is definitely one I’ll remember,’’ said Chong, who also did well breaking UCLA’s pressure. ``It means a lot. It’s coming close to an end over here. But being in the Elite Eight, I’m really excited. I’ve just been having so much fun. I’ve been challenged. I’ve been working really hard in practice. Just at this time it’s all or nothing.’’

The timeliness of Chong’s offensive production was key for the Huskies throughout the game. She had four points during a 20-4 run to end the first quarter. She made a 3-pointer to stop a run by the Bruins early in the third quarter. She made another 3-pointer with 1:18 remaining in the third quarter after seeing UConn’s lead cut to 12.

Finally, Chong made two free throws with 3:11 left to help hold off UCLA down the stretch.

``We completely trust Saniya and that’s something she has proved throughout the year,’’ UConn junior Kia Nurse said. ``It’s not only in the games that everyone’s seen but the practices that we’ve had. The consistency has been there all season. To add another dimension is big for us. For Saniya to have a great game, a great breakout game like this with everything that she has gone through the past four years is huge.

``Saniya’s not only a great player but a great person. She’s someone who wants to be great, someone who works at it and won’t give up. When Coach challenges her, she responds.’’

Napheesa Collier led the Huskies with 27 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. It is her second double-double of the tournament and her 15th of the season.

Williams added 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while Katie Lou Samuelson scored 14 of her 15 points in the first half and had six rebounds.

With the win, Auriemma moved into a tie with former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most NCAA tournament wins (112).

``It’s not surprising,” Samuelson said. ``He definitely has built something here that is special and unprecedented. It’s really amazing to be a part of that and to be able to work with him and learn from whatever he says because clearly he knows what he’s doing. He’s done it for so many years better than anyone. He’s probably the best coach to coach basketball period. He’s really the greatest.’’

The Huskies opened the game by missing seven of their first eight shots and trailed 9-2 with 7:22 left in the first quarter. Their lack of shooting accuracy proved to be short-lived.

UConn made 18 of its final 24 shots of the half to open a 48-31 lead at halftime. UCLA made 12 of its final 39.

``We like to say that to play with us it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint,’’ Williams said. ``They came out hard. They came out aggressive. But there was 37 minutes left to play.’’

Led by junior guard Jordin Canada, the Bruins managed to close to within 12 three times in the second half. Each time the Huskies, who did not make a field goal over the final 6:15, held firm.

Canada led UCLA with 20 points and 11 assists. The Bruins (25-9) also received 17 points and 16 rebounds from junior Monique Billings.

``We played a really, really good team,’’ Auriemma said. ``They are hard to play against. And (Saturday) was a struggle for us. Even when we got up 20, I didn’t think it was like being up 20 against somebody else where you know it’s going to go from 20 to 30. I never had that feeling. It was a grind for our guys. We felt it a little bit in the fourth quarter.’’

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