Video report by Bob Rumbold, Fox CT
Text by John Altavilla, Hartford Courant
LINCOLN, Neb. – One well-worn adage about sports has always rubbed Geno Auriemma the wrong way.
He believes one does not truly defend a championship. He says championships are unique, won by players defined by distinctive circumstances. Then the cast changes, new chemistry is introduced and off they go again.
So, this business about the Huskies‘ defending last year’s national championship, although technically correct, doesn’t really fly with the boss, just like it didn’t the first seven times someone tried to tell him so.
Auriemma has said from the start if this team won the program’s ninth national championship it would – and should – stand alone.
Well, now it’s 38 down, two more to go for this team and its singular moment on the stage.
The No. 1 Huskies moved to their 15th Final Four, their seventh straight since 2008, with a 69-54 win over Texas A&M before 7,169 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“We came out here and it wasn’t easy by any means,” Bria Hartley said. “We’re just happy that is all ended like this. We couldn’t be happier right now.”
UConn (38-0), which has now won 44 straight dating to a first-round win over Idaho in last year’s tournament, again had all five starters score in double-figures, led by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. The junior scored 17 points with seven rebounds.
“What I went through this season is totally taken away, but it makes it a whole lot better,” Mosqueda-Lewisa said of the 12 games she missed because of injury and illness.
Hartley and Stefanie Dolson had 14 points each. Breanna Stewart scored 13 and Moriah Jefferson scored 11.
Texas A&M (27-9) was paced by Courtney Walker (14 points) and Courtney Williams (13 points).
As usual over the past few years, UConn climbed no victory ladder and took home no cord. The important nets hang off the rims at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
UConn (38-0) will play the winner of the Stanford-North Carolina regional final Tuesday in Palo Alto, Calif., in Sunday’s national semifinals.
By winning, the women join the UConn men in next weekend’s Final Four fray. It will be the fourth time in program history (2004, 2009 and 2011) the Husky men and women go together.
They each won the championship in 2004, the only time that has happened.
“The school right now is just going crazy,” Jefferson said. “Our fans are behind us. We both want to go out and win it all.”
The Huskies operated in a style so reminiscent of this season. They got off to a slow start, caught up and then got hot. But it wasn’t quite that easy.
The Huskies led 34-23 at the half but two quick threes by sophomore guard Jordan Jones, the first two of the regional for the Aggies, trimmed the lead. Another basket by Jones made it 40-37 with 15:08 to play.
And there the rally died. A basket by Jefferson kicked off a 10-0 run that included three-pointers from Hartley and Stewart. That led to UConn’s largest lead to that point (13) at 50-37 with 11:39 to play.
As for the specifics of how it all began: The Huskies fell behind 11-4 in the first 6:12. Had Aggies’ guard Jones dropped the second of two free throws she had at the time, the resulting eight-point lead would have been the largest UConn faced this season.
Although the situation wasn’t fatal, it was somewhat annoying. On Saturday against BYU, the Huskies fell behind 27-21 before mounting their big comeback.
Much like the BYU game, it was Mosqueda-Lewis in the midst of the rally. She scored seven straight in an 11-2 run that provided a 15-13 lead with 9:27 remaining, UConn’s first since Stewart opened the game with a hoop just 45 seconds in.
From there, it was all UConn. The nation’s best defense put the Aggies in a tight squeeze, limiting them to just 10 points in the final 10:18. Texas A&M was just 11-for-38 in the first half.
On the other end, UConn’s offense, fueled exclusively by the starters, took flight. The first 10-point lead (27-17) came with a burst of speed from Jefferson with 3:52 to play in the first half. The sophomore guard’s next dagger was tossed from three 50 seconds later. It was UConn’s game.
The Aggies used defense and 60 percent shooting to beat DePaul on Saturday. That was an effort that featured a distinct lack of a perimeter attack; the Aggies were 0-for-2 from three-point range.
Gary Blair, the homespun Hall of Fame coach of the Aggies, warned the wise guys not to take his team lightly, pointing to the lack of respect his 2011 team received on the way to its first and only national title.
Blair, like all the other coaches, promised his team would battle for 40 minutes, the most important line item that needs to be checked off the upset-UConn check list.
But it takes a lot more to beat UConn this year than gumption. And the Aggies just didn’t have it their tank.