It's not supposed to be easy this time of the year. Just ask Geno Auriemma.
BRIDGEPORT: UConn head coach Geno Auriemma often reminds folks that this time of the year is something very different for teams, something special and always really difficult.
In their 86-71 win over a spunky UCLA Bruins team, that’s exactly what his team got, a hard time.
“Obviously, you know we played against a really, really good team,” Auriemma said. “They are hard to play against and today was a struggle for us. Even when we got up 20, I didn’t think it was like getting up 20 against somebody else. I never had that feeling. It was a grind for our guys. We felt a bit tired in the fourth quarter.”
Soon after watching the No. 10 seeded Oregon Ducks upset the No. 3 seed Maryland by a 77-63 final, the Huskies went out and tried not to be the latest in a string of upsets that have shown up in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins were a long, athletic team that came in on a mission as well, not a squad that was just being happy to be at this stage of the game.
Behind some serious guard play from junior Jordin Canada (20 points and 11 assists) and the three-point bombings of Kari Korver (15 points on 5-11 from three-point land), the Bruins never faded, never went the route of so many teams this time of the year who succumb to the relentless nature of the pressure that the Huskies bring to the game.
Forward Monique Billings brought with her an athleticism that few teams have offered as a challenge and even gave UConn junior Gabby Williams all she could handle in a 17 point, 16 rebound effort.
It was a treat to watch the two battle underneath and Williams was on her game as well with a 17 point, nine rebound performance.
A great deal of credit for the Huskies moving on to the Elite Eight on Monday against the Ducks goes to the only senior in the starting lineup, Saniya Chong who kept the offense running by routinely and methodically working her way through the Bruins press all afternoon long.
Her 16 points were a career high in the big dance over her sometimes inconsistent and frustrating four years on the court.
UCLA came out hot, jumping out to a 9-2 lead with a little better than three minutes gone but a key three by Chong capped a 17-2 run that put the top seed on top for good.
Still, it was a struggle for UConn at time as they won their 110th straight game and are just three wins away from their 12th National Championship.
Every time the top seed seemed poised to make that classic run, that knockout punch, the Bruins refused to go along, usually helped by the play of their big three who accounted for 52 of their teams 71 points.
Korver would hit a bomb or Canada would drive to the basket every time it looked like the team from the West Coast was done.
Credit head coach Cori Close for keeping her team focused despite who they were up against.
“I thought we were prepared,” Close said. “I thought we believed in what we were doing. We had that stretch in the first half that we kind of lost our focus and our discipline and when you lose that, they capitalize.”
The Bruins committed just six turnovers to the Huskies 14, a rarity in any game against a pressuring UConn team that usually feasts on their opponent’s miscues.
UCLA battled hard on the paint, losing that battle by just four points at 32-28.
So on Monday night, UConn will look to get back to the Final Four for the 10th consecutive year if they can get a Ducks team that shocked the woman’s basketball world by upsetting the heavily favored Terrapins.
Many saw Maryland/UConn in the final here in Bridgeport.
Not everyone may have thought the Huskies would be here at this point when the year started but yet again, here they are.
It wasn’t easy on Saturday afternoon, it won’t be easy on Monday night.
Not supposed to be. Just ask the head coach.