ALBANY — They’re back.
For the 12th straight year, the Connecticut women’s basketball team is headed to the Final Four.
It didn’t matter that this time the team wasn’t a No. 1 seed. It didn’t matter that by the Huskies’ standards, they’ve had an up-and-down year, losing twice in the regular season and appearing vulnerable in earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
The only thing that mattered in the Albany Regional final Sunday was that UConn was able to get a top performance from a top player when it needed it most. Katie Lou Samuelson, who had missed the conference tournament because of a sore back, scored 29 points to lead the second-seeded Huskies to an 80-73 win over top-seeded Louisville.
“I wanted to keep my career going,” the senior said. “I had to step up. They were really making it hard for us, so I had to do what I could.”
Connecticut will play in a national semifinal Friday in Tampa, Florida, against the winner of the Chicago Regional final Monday between defending champion and top-seeded Notre Dame and second-seeded Stanford.
In the past 20 years, the Huskies have been America’s greatest basketball dynasty, winning 10 national titles and now making 17 Final Four appearances. They won four straight titles during the Breanna Stewart era (2012-16) and there was some sentiment that their dominance was hurting interest in the game.
In the past three years, though, the rest of the basketball world has started to catch up. UConn has failed to reach the final since Stewart graduated, and in the Huskies’ previous two national semifinals, they lost on last-second shots.
This year marked the first time since 2006 that they have not been a No. 1 seed, meaning that coach Geno Auriemma found himself in the unfamiliar role of underdog. That goes a long way toward explaining why he looked pleased to advance to the Final Four with this team.
The 12th consecutive trip to the Final Four is an NCAA record, for men and women.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to happen,’’ Auriemma said of the record. “Not in today’s world, the way things change and teams keep getting better and better. It’s not normal. It’s something that’s hard to describe because even if you’re writing a book and making it up, people would say it doesn’t happen in real life. It has happened in real life.
“I’m still boggled, my mind doesn’t get how it can happen this many years in a row with a different cast of characters that change so often. No, it’s not normal, it’s not normal.’’
It’s not normal, and late in the game, it looked as if it might not happen.
Though the Huskies never trailed after taking the lead late in the first quarter, they nearly blew an 11-point lead with 1:47 remaining. Louisville went on a 10-1 run to cut its deficit to 75-73 with 29 seconds left.
After Samuelson hit two free throws to make it a four-point game, Louisville’s Asia Durr was fouled. She missed both free throws and the game slipped away from the Cardinals.
Durr, who had 21 points, nine rebounds and five assists Sunday, led Louisville in its regular-season win over the Huskies. On Sunday, however, she missed her first eight shots. A strong three-point shooting team all season, the Cardinals were 4-for-22 from long range.
Samuelson hit seven of UConn’s 14 three-pointers, including two in the fourth quarter when her team needed them most. It was an encouraging sign, particularly after she scored only six points against UCLA on Friday while battling back pain.
It’s clear that Connecticut, which has won 17 straight since losing to Louisville Jan. 31, feels pretty good heading to Tampa.
Said Samuelson: “This team has done a lot to get to this point. To win the way we did and play the way we are playing right now as a team, it’s special.”