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UConn Reaches 10th Straight Final Four With Convincing Win Over Oregon (By Rich Elliott)

POSTED March 28, 2017
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By Rich Elliott

BRIDGEPORT – The UConn women’s basketball team might have made it look easy so often this season. Yet, behind closed doors, navigating along a path to success was anything but easy.

The Huskies engaged in a daily battle to improve, to solidify roles and to mold themselves into the type of team that could vie for a national championship. Steadily, they progressed. Steadily, they found cohesion.

Now, in the final days of the season, top-ranked UConn has thrust itself within two wins of reaching the pinnacle of the sport. Regional Most Outstanding Player Napheesa Collier had 28 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and two steals to lead the Huskies to a 90-52 victory over 10th-seeded Oregon Monday in the Bridgeport regional final before a sellout crowd of 8,978 at Webster Bank Arena.

``I couldn't be happier for this group,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``They had a lot of question marks going into the season, and maybe they didn’t have any in their own minds. Everybody else did, including me. But they seemed to have answered every single one of those questions, and they deserve to be in the Final Four. They’ve earned it. I’m proud of them. And I’m happy for them.’’

Collier recorded her third double-double of the tournament and her 16th of the season. She also became the fourth UConn player this season to reach 1,000 career points (1,001), joining Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams.

Senior Saniya Chong hoisted, and then cradled, the regional championship trophy after it was presented to the Huskies during a postgame ceremony. Along with Tierney Lawlor, she is part of the winningest class in the history of the sport (152-1).

``We worked really hard this year to be where we are,’’ Collier said. ``It was kind of a grind for us this year. So the fact that we are where we are I’m really proud of us and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.’’

The Huskies, who extended their record winning streak to 111 games, advanced to the Final Four for an NCAA record 10th straight season and a record-tying 18th time overall. Tennessee is the only team that has made as many appearances since the origin of the NCAA tournament in 1982.

This is also the seventh time that UConn (36-0) has reached the Final Four undefeated. Only two other teams have done so – Texas (1985-86) and Baylor (2011-12).

``It's such a hard feat to accomplish in so many ways,’’ Auriemma said. ``It only takes one loss. You're not playing best-out-of-5 or best out-of-7. So in all those 10 years, all it took was one loss at the wrong time during March and you’re out. So for us to have gone 10 months of March in a row and not having lost a game through a whole different cast of characters, over all that time, that's pretty darned good. That’s probably more than anything what really hits home for me.’’

UConn will face Mississippi State in the national semifinals Friday at American Airlines Center in Dallas (10 p.m.; ESPN2). South Carolina and Stanford will meet in the first game (7:30 p.m.; ESPN2).

Mississippi State (33-4) has reached the Final Four for the first time.

``I think we have a lot of confidence because we know if we play the way that we can then no one can really stop us,’’ Collier said. ``It’s just about getting there and staying focused and locking in.’’

Williams added 25 points (9-for-13 FG, 7-for-7 FT), six rebounds, three assists and four steals for the Huskies, who have set an NCAA single-season record with 852 assists. Chong produced 11 points (3-for-5 3-pointers), four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Nurse had 11 points and seven assists.

Chong and Williams were named to the all-tournament team. They were joined by Oregon freshman Sabrina Ionescu and Jordin Canada of UCLA.

``I think everyone on this team is the happiest people in the world right now,’’ said Samuelson, who finished with eight points, three rebounds, four assists and five steals. “Every person that has contributed and done something, we know how hard we have worked. We aren’t thinking so much about the streak. At this point we have moved on from that. Basically we got to 100 and whatever happens now happens with that. Now our only goal is going to Dallas and taking care of business.’’

Oregon eliminated No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Maryland to reach the Elite 8 for the first time. Its run came to an abrupt end against four-time defending national champion UConn.

Leading 6-4 just over two minutes into the game, the Huskies scored the next 17 points in what was a 22-3 run to take command. Chong ignited the surge with back-to-back 3-pointers and had eight points in a span of 4:33.

UConn ultimately finished the first half by scoring 11 straight points in a 13-3 run over the final 5:11 to open a 49-24 at halftime. Five different players scored for the Huskies during this burst.

``I think we had our team ready,’’ Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. ``Our team was confident going in. I just don't think we were able to handle that that early, I think just kind of the shock of how good they are, and it got us on our heels quickly. Unfortunately, the turnovers doomed us right from the get-go and that defensive pressure I think really set the tone.’’

The Huskies scored 28 points off of 17 turnovers by the Ducks in the first half. They totaled 16 steals in the game and scor6ed 32 points off of 22 turnovers.

Ionescu led Oregon with 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists.

``The players that we have today, for the first time in their careers, they've owned the whole month of March,’’ Auriemma said. ``They weren't just along for the ride. It's theirs. And that's a huge step. That's a big step to go from riding in the backseat on a trip that you're going to, to all of a sudden you're in charge of driving the bus and you're responsible for getting us there.

``A lot of times people have to lose to learn how to win, and for them to just step in right where the other team left off and take immediate ownership of it that says a lot about who they are. I can't say enough about each and every one of them, but especially that starting five. There's just something unique about them right now that’s going on and they deserve all of it. And they don’t have to share it with anybody. It's not anyone else’s but theirs, and they’re enjoying it.’’

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