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Team Effort Leads UConn Past Oregon State And Into NCAA Title Game By Rich Elliott

POSTED April 03, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

INDIANAPOLIS – Seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck have received the majority of the attention for the UConn women’s basketball team this season. With good reason, too. Stewart is the nation’s top player. All three of them are All-Americans.

What sometimes might go unnoticed is the true strength that the top-ranked Huskies possess as a whole. They are  much more than the Big Three. And they proved it on the game’s biggest stage Sunday against Oregon State.

Tuck delivered 21 points, three rebounds and three assists. Yet, every member of UConn’s primary rotation made an impact in an 80-51 victory in the NCAA national semifinals before15,227 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Huskies have reached the tournament final for the 11th time (10-0).

 ``I think it shows how good our team is,’’ Tuck said. ``And that Stewie is the best player in the country, but she has a great supporting cast and we're able to step up and make plays. And even when our subs are coming off the bench, they’re contributing right away. So I think that’s what makes us a really, really great team. We don’t have to go rely on one person to get it done.’’

The Huskies (37-0) will face former Big East foe Syracuse in the title game Tuesday night (8:30; ESPN) with an eye on history. They are seeking to become the first team in Division I women’s basketball history to win four straight national championships.

 A win over the Orange (30-7) would also represent UConn’s record 11th national championship, giving Geno Auriemma more than any other men’s or women’s Division I basketball coach. Legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden won 10 at UCLA.

``I think it sunk in when we were going to the locker room, getting back to the locker room we were all excited,’’ Stewart said. ``We know that we have one game left. We’re exactly in the position that we want to be in. And now it’s practice (today). National championship game Tuesday.’’

Behind 18 points, three rebounds and six assists from Alexis Peterson, Syracuse defeated Washington 80-59 in the second game Sunday to advance to the title game for the first time. The Orange set Final Four records for made 3-pointers (12) and 3-pointers attempted (33).

The win did not come without some misfortune for UConn. Starting forward Katie Lou Samuelson (seven points, three rebounds, two assists in 17 minutes) missed the entire second half after breaking a bone in her left foot. Her season is over.

``I guess it happened on the very first possession that we had where she drove it to the basket and she said she felt something but didn’t really say anything and just continued to play on it,’’ Auriemma said. ``And it wasn't until late in the first half that we found out that there was something wrong. Then by halftime, when we were in the locker room, we knew that when she wasn’t back in the locker room right away, it had to be something. And then before the second half started, Rosemary Ragle, our athletic trainer, told me she has a broken bone in her foot and she’s out. And we just addressed it with our team real quick and play on.’’

Samuelson returned to the bench wearing a boot on her foot with 8:00 left in the third quarter. Soon after Auriemma would place his hand on the back of the neck of an emotional Samuelson and whispered something in her ear to console her.

Stewart also provided Samuelson with some words of encouragement after leaving the game for good with 2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.

``I think that we were aware of what was going on,’’ Stewart said. ``And, especially as a freshman, being in the Final Four that’s not what you want to happen. That’s not ideal. She wants to be in the game playing with us. And I think my thoughts coming off the bench was just being there to kind of comfort her. I don't know how much it's going to help. But kind of giving her the idea that we got this.’’

Stewart scored 14 of her 16 points in the second half and added eight rebounds and two steals. Jefferson had 10 points, three rebounds and seven assists. She also became UConn’s career leader with 654 assists.

Diana Taurasi held the previous mark of 648.

``It means the world to me,” Jefferson said. “I really never expected that. I really just wanted to come here and be a good point guard for my team, and I end up leaving with the assist record. I’m sure (Taurasi) will say something to me before I get a chance to say anything, and I will just pat her on the back and look at her with a smile.’’

Kia Nurse finished with nine points and five assists for UConn. Gabby Williams added eight points, five rebounds and two steals in 15 minutes off the bench. Freshman reserve Napheesa Collier produced six points, two rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 14 minutes.

UConn, who has won 74 straight games and a record 23 straight NCAA tournament games, shot 56.7 percent from the field (52.9 3-pointers).

``We talked about being a team effort and a team win,’’ Auriemma said ``It’s one thing to play against a great player because you can gang up on them and figure out a way to get the ball out of their hands if you want to. But to try to beat a really good team that’s playing well together, that’s difficult to do. So if you're going to win these games, you're not going to be able to come out here and just say, `OK, Stewie. Get it done.’ It's not going to happen. Invariably your team has to win these games. And that's what happened (Sunday).’’

Tuck immediately took the lead for the Huskies, scoring 13 points (5-for-7 FG) in the first 7:18. UConn built a 24-8 lead without a point – or a shot attempt –from Stewart.

Stewart, who picked up two fouls in the opening 2:05, did not take her first shot until there was 6:55 left in the second quarter. She did not score until making a jumper in the lane with 3:00 left in the first half. The hoop gave UConn a 41-26 lead.

``At this point in the season, there’s nothing to save anything for,’’ Tuck said. ``We have to make sure that we don’t underestimate a team. Oregon State is a great team that made it to the Final Four. So you have to come out and try to punch them first.’’

The Huskies ended the first half with a 15-2 run, holding the Beavers scoreless over the final 3:19, to open a 47-26 lead at halftime. UConn was aided considerably by the effort of Williams (six points, two steals) and Napheesa Collier (four points, two steals) off the bench.

Oregon State went scoreless over the final 3:19 of the half, missing six of its last seven shots.

``They can hit from everywhere,’’ Oregon State senior Jamie Weisner said. ``People come in off the bench and there's no lag. They expose every weakness and make you pay for it, force you into things you don't want to do. And then offensively they have weapons everywhere, every position.

UConn led by as many as 34 in the second half.

Sydney Wiese led Oregon State (32-5) with 13 points and five rebounds. Ruth Hamblin added 10 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks.

The Beavers, making their first Final Four appearance, shot 33.3 percent from the field and committed 18 turnovers.

``Hats off to UConn,’’ Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. ``They played a phenomenal game. I thought they obviously shot the ball extremely well. With a team like that, you’ve got to kind of pick your poison. And that team made us pay no matter what we did. And that’s why they are who they are. Offensively they really made us work and kept us off balance. And credit them.’’

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