BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – When the smoke cleared from the Sweet 16 battles across the four regions, mighty Baylor, the overall NCAA women’s basketball tournament favorite, had fallen 24 hours after top-seeded Stanford was short-circuited.
Suddenly, it seemed the 2013 edition of the Big Dance had morphed into speculation that things were now wide open and any of the eight remaining teams had the potential to succeed Brittney Griner and company in holding the championship trophy in the New Orleans Arena in The Big Easy next Tuesday night.
But fantasy did not last long here Monday night in the Webster Bank Arena at the Bridgeport Regional where No. 2 seeded Kentucky’s dreams of using the upset karma and avenging last year’s ejection by No. 1 Connecticut in the same round transformed into a big time nightmare and ultimately an 83-53 victory to send coach Geno Auriemma’s Huskies (33-4) on their way to a record sixth straight Final Four.
However, for UConn to go on to gain an eighth national title the Huskies will have to deal with another "40 minutes of dread" on Sunday when they meet Big East rival Notre Dame in the national semifinal for the third straight year and competitively it will be the fourth straight this season with the Irish having won the first three all by the slimmest of margins.
“Whomever we play Sunday, that’s our main focus right now,” Auriemma said 24 hours before UConn’s semifinal foe became known when Notre Dame topped Duke in the Norfolk Regional. “After Sunday, we’ll play on Tuesday or we’re going home. Right now we have a great chance to win a national championship.
If that happens, it will be the eighth title for Auriemma, which will tie him with Tennessee coach emeritus Past Summitt.
Meanwhile, back on Monday night at the Bridgeport Regional, for 11 minutes the Wildcats caused the sellout crowd of predominantly UConn fans to do some serious squirming in their seats.
However, after Kentucky went up 23-22 the Huskies defense slammed shut coach Matthew Mitchell’s offense with a 26-3 run to the break at that pretty much decided the issue.
In the middle of it all on the same floor where Delaware sensation Elena Delle Donne closed her career in the Blue Hens’ Saturday loss to Kentucky (30-6) the next sensation took over in UConn freshman Breanna Stewart had nine of her game-high 21 points and also wowed the crowd with one of her three blocked shots.
During the run Kentucky missed 13 of its remaining 14 shots in the period allowing only Jelleah Sidney’s three-pointer, which she launched from the wing.
Stewart, like Delle Donne in 2008, was the national high school player of the year in coming out of Syracuse. Delle Donne starred at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 17 points for UConn, while Kelly Farris, a senior and a candidate for national defensive player of the year, scored 12, with Bria Hartley and Heather Buck getting 10 each.
Stefanie Dolson, playing with a stress fracture in her right ankle and suffering from planter fasciitis in her left foot, was still effective for the UConn defense with 11 rebounds.
“What I most admired about her this tournament was every time she was on the bench she kept looking at me,'why am I out?'," said Auriemma. "That, for somebody who is hurting that much, who didn’t practice (Sunday) and walked through shootaround epitomizes the spirit we have right now on this team.”
UConn has been playing strong through four games after losing the Big East title game to Notre Dame. Stewart has averaged 16.4 points a game, beginning with the conference tourney following struggles during the mid-season.
This will be the Huskies’ 14th Final Four after advancing to the regional final 19 times in the past 23 seasons.
“I don’t know more things in sports that are more impressive,” Kerntucky’s Mitchell said of UConn’s current Final Four appearance streak. “They have talented players who are extremely well coached and work extremely hard.”
Faris said despite all the postseason success, “It doesn’t get old. Each year is different and special for us seniors. This is it for us, our last go round. We want to go out with a bang. We’re not satisfied until the final game.”
Mitchell’s team has worked hard also but has been frustrated in being stopped short of the Final Four three times in the past four seasons.
“I don’t think we’re going to get discouraged,” he said after Kentucky finished with the most victories for the Wildcats in a season. “I know our players wanted us to perform better than we did. If anyone started to think it’s not going to happen, they’re not inside our program. We’ll get there.”
Kentucky has gotten a long way with the play of A’dia Matthies, who had 14 points in her final collegiate game for the Wildcats. Jennifer O’Neill scored 13 points and made the all-tournament team with Delle Donne, Fair and Mosqueda-Lewis besides Stewart, who gained the top individual honor.
Mitchell spoke of Matthies’ elevating the program in her four years.
“I have to make sure the contribution she made doesn’t get lost on a real tough 40 minute game,” he explained. “We didn’t play well. A’dia has been a great blessing to the university. We have a chance to move on with growth. We’re at a better place than when we arrived.”
However, unless the Huskies begin to decline, Kentucky is going to have to find a way to avoid being assigned to the same bracket as UConn – because right now the regional neighborhood is only big enough for a collective one – that being the Huskies.
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