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UConn Defeats Texas To Advance to Record Ninth Straight Final Four By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 28, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

BRIDGEPORT – The UConn women basketball team has made so much look easy this season. Yet, when perfection is the goal daily, nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

The top-ranked Huskies endured their share of challenges. And through it all they find themselves exactly where they hoped they would be at this time of the season – the Final Four.

Regional Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks to lead UConn to an 86-65 victory over second-seeded Texas Monday in the NCAA Bridgeport regional final before a sellout crowd of 9,008 at Webster Bank Arena.

``I think whenever you have a new team it’s hard,’’ said Stewart, who was named regional MOP for the third time. ``Nothing comes easy and especially playing for (Coach Geno Auriemma), playing at UConn, nothing is easy. And we had to build that chemistry, to rebuild the chemistry with our entire team, to show the young guys how we do things, to become even better leaders, take on bigger roles. It wasn't easy, but the experience definitely helps.’’

The Huskies (36-0) have advanced to the Final Four for an NCAA record ninth straight season and the 17th time overall. Tennessee (18) is the only team that has made more appearances since the dawn of the NCAA tournament in 1982.

This is also the sixth time that UConn has reached the Final Four undefeated. Only two other teams have done so – Texas in 1986 and Baylor in 2012.

``It speaks to what the program has done over the last 30 years, how great they have been and the type of people they have had here,’’ UConn sophomore Kia Nurse said. “It is more than just you come in here, you wear the UConn jersey and you are going to the Final Four. You work for it. The coaches teach you every single day that you have to earn every minute. You have to earn every win. All together, it is just a testament to the tradition of excellence that has been built here.”

UConn, who has won 73 straight games and an NCAA record 22 straight NCAA tournament games, will face Oregon State in the national semifinals Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (6 p.m.; ESPN). Syracuse and Washington will meet in the second game (8:30 p.m.; ESPN2).

Behind 18 points and six assists from Sydney Wiese, Oregon State defeated Baylor 60-57 in the Dallas regional final Monday. The Beavers (32-4) have reached the Final Four for the first time.

``This is a big part of us reaching our goal, and we have to go to the Final Four to do that,’’ UConn senior Morgan Tuck said. ``So I think that as a team, we're just really excited to be able to go and enjoy the Final Four and then, hopefully, win two games.’’

Tuck delivered 22 points, six rebounds and three assists for UConn. Moriah Jefferson added 11 points and nine assists, while Nurse had 11 points and two assists. Freshmen Katie Lou Samuelson (six rebounds) and Napheesa Collier (four rebounds) each contributed nine points.

Jefferson and Tuck were named to the all-regional team. They were joined by Ariel Atkins and Lashann Higgs of Texas.

Tuck was honored for the second consecutive season. It is the first such honor for Jefferson.

``We’re really excited to go to the Final Four,’’ Stewart said. ``I think that any time you go it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot going on. Coach is talking about this is our last trip with this team. Last time to be with this team. And I think we’re just going to enjoy it. Especially as seniors. Last time it’s going to be like this.’’

UConn also eliminated Texas (31-5) last season with a 105-54 win in the regional semifinals in Albany, N.Y.

The Longhorns put up a fight in the rematch, trailing 30-25 with 7:20 left in the first half. But keyed by five points from Collier, four from Stewart and three from Samuelson, the Huskies ripped off a 12-1 run.

UConn held Texas without field goal for 5:41. The Longhorns missed seven straight shots during the run.

``I think it was a spurt in the second quarter where we lost our game plan and we let them extend the run,’’ Texas senior Imani Boyette said. ``It's definitely important when you're playing UConn to not necessarily answer in terms of offensively, but lock down defensively and stay locked into the game plan with help side defense and staying together as a team.’’

The Huskies led 46-31 at halftime, shooting 60.7 percent from the field. The lead was 12 with 5:32 left in the third quarter after three straight 3-pointers by Texas.

Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck, however, again provided the answers for UConn. They combined to score 26 of the Huskies’ next 28 points before leaving the game with 1:38 remaining and an 82-60 lead.

“There was a point when they were starting to go on a run where we were like, ‘OK, we need to step up. We need to take over,’” Stewart said. ``Me, Morgan and Moriah, we were like, `This is our team, and we’re going to make sure we’re going on to next weekend.’

“This isn’t a time when we get nervous. We’re fortunate to have been in this position so many times that we know exactly what’s going to happen. We’ve worked hard to be in these situations, and we’re prepared for these situations. It’s when the best players play their best.”

Tuck and Stewart scored off of back-to-back inbounds plays. Jefferson and Stewart then each made a 3-pointer to settle the Huskies.

Tuck produced 12 points during this span for UConn. Stewart had nine. Jefferson had five.

``They’ve been there and done it so they understand what that pressure feels like,’’ Texas coach Karen Aston said. ``And they have a confidence level from the experiences that’s unique. And then you can’t deny that they’re talented. I don’t want to take that away from them also that they are extremely talented, but they also had that level of experiences that takes them probably mentally to a different place.’’

Atkins and Higgs led Texas with 19 points apiece. Brooke McCarty added 15. The Longhorns were looking to return to the Final Four for the first time since losing to UConn in 2003 and the fourth time overall.

As expected, the Huskies did not cut down the nets after the game. That is something they hope to do April 5 after winning a fourth straight national championship.

``This game is the most difficult game I think to win, and it showed,’’ Auriemma said. ``You’re playing against a really good team that really tested us at both ends of the floor, kind of forced our best players to play great. That’s exactly what you need at this time in the tournament. You don’t want to be going to the Final Four thinking that games are easy. And in spite of the score (Monday) this was by no means easy at all. I’m excited for our seniors. I’ve been thinking about it all year long, how I really want it to end. And they say being there is half the battle, right? So some great things can happen next weekend, but you have to be there to make it happen and we did the hard part.’’

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