Huskies answer the challenge. Make it to the Final Four. By Rich Elliott.
By Rich Elliott
ALBANY, N.Y. – The question seemed to be on the minds of many across the nation for the better part of the past four months.
Through the first 36 games, the top-ranked UConn women’s basketball team led the nation with a plus-42.5 margin of victory. An 88-86 loss at Stanford Nov. 17 had been their lone blemish. The Huskies won at then-No. 2 Notre Dame Dec. 6 (76-58). They defeated then-No. 1 South Carolina at Gampel Pavilion Feb. 9 (87-62). And they were coming off of a 51-point win over Texas in the Albany Regional semifinals.
How would UConn respond if it found itself locked in a close game against a gutty, determined opponent? Trailing by one to seventh-seeded Dayton Monday, the Huskies had all the answers they needed during an impressive second half that yielded a 91-70 victory in the regional final before 7,686 at the Times Union Center. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 14 of her game-high 27 points in the second half and added five rebounds and three steals to power UConn’s surge.
"It seems to be a question that a lot of people give us is that `Can you guys win close games? Can you guys come back from being down?’ And that’s never been a doubt in our mind,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. "We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we have a lot of people that can step up to the occasion. And I think we showed that (Monday).’’
The Huskies have reached the Final Four for an NCAA record eighth straight season and the 16th time overall. Tennessee (18), Stanford (12), Louisiana Tech (10) and Notre Dame (7) are the only teams that have made more than more five appearances in the history of the NCAA tournament.
UConn (36-1) will face Maryland (34-2) in the national semifinals Sunday at approximately 9 p.m. at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet in the first game at 6:30.
Not only did Mosqueda-Lewis help lead the Huskies to their 35th straight win Monday, she was also 7-of-10 from 3-point range to set the all-time NCAA record with 395 made 3-pointers. The previous mark of 392 had been shared by Laurie Koehn of Kansas State (2002-05) and Heather Butler of Tennessee-Martin (2011-14).
"It’s definitely going to be something I cherish,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. "It’s something that means a lot to me and something that I feel like I worked really hard for.’’
Regional Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart, who was also honored in 2013, finished with 23 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and four blocks for the Huskies. It was her second straight double-double and her fifth in the last seven games.
Morgan Tuck contributed 23 points (13 second half), eight rebounds and three assists, while Moriah Jefferson had 10 points, six assists, two steals and zero turnovers in 39 minutes.
Mosqueda-Lewis, who along with Stewart was named to the five-player Wooden All-American team Monday, and Tuck were named to the all-regional team. It was the third straight season that Mosqueda-Lewis has been selected to the all-regional team.
The Huskies had runs of 15-3 and 17-2 in the second half as they overcame a one-point deficit at halftime.
"They were desperate for (a challenge),’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "You could see it in their face in the second half. Now I’m not sure they were dying for it to be the way it was that first 20 minutes, but … This game was fun. Fun because they had to make plays against a team that was making plays right back at them. And when you’re a competitor, wow, that’s the best way to go, isn’t it?’’
Dayton (28-7) had defeated second-seeded Kentucky and third-seeded Louisville to advance to the regional final for the first time. The Flyers gave it their best shot against UConn.
Led by 14 points and four 3-pointers by Ally Mallot, Dayton shot 51.4 percent from the field in the first half (7-of-10 3-pointers) and led 44-43 at halftime. It was the most points scored against the Huskies in the first half since DePaul had 47 March 1, 2008.
UConn followed by scoring the first nine points of the second half to immediately set the tone.
"We’re usually not in that situation, but I think we handled it well,’’ Tuck said referring to UConn losing at halftime for the first time since a 61-59 loss to Notre Dame March 12, 2013 (35-26). "We didn’t come in the locker room and sulk and `Oh, we’re losing.’ We do things against the practice players all the time where we’re down and we have to come back and win. So even though we haven’t had a game necessarily like that we do do that where we have to come back. So I think we handled it really well and I think the second half we came out and recovered from the first half.’’
The closest Dayton would come in the final 10 minutes was 64-57 with 9:51 left. However, UConn answered by scoring the next 10 points.
"I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get to Tampa,’’ Auriemma said. "It could all go south. It could all go the other way. People have this foregone conclusion that it’s us and a bunch of JV teams. And I think what was proven (Monday) was, `No, it isn’t.’ We sometimes make teams look like JV teams, but that’s not what we’re playing against. So … I’ve said this in the past the more our team is challenged, generally speaking, the better we play. And (Monday) we were really, really challenged. I think what happened and the way the game was played was probably the best thing that could happen to us.’’
The Flyers were 6-of-20 (1-of-5 3-pointers) from the field and committed seven turnovers in the opening 14:07 of the second half.
"They’re the best team in the country, bar none,’’ Dayton coach Jim Jabir said.
The Huskies donned gray ``Cut The Net’’ regional championship T-shirts following the game. They posed for pictures. But, as has become the norm, they did not cut down the nets.
Mosqueda-Lewis said that UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey gives the Huskies the option to do so every year. But they collectively opt to save it for their ultimate goal – after winning a national championship.
Thanks to a dominant second half that saw UConn outscore Dayton 48-26, this team now stands just two wins away from a chance to ascend a ladder and cut down the nets one more time.
"That’s the only net that ever really matters to us,’’ Jefferson said. "This is so important. And we’re so excited for our freshmen and for the guys that are (going to the Final Four) for the first time. And even for us (veterans). We don’t take any of this lightly or for granted at all. But I think we just have bigger goal in mind.’’