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UConn women’s basketball struggles early but tops UCLA in Sweet 16

Connecticut's Katie Lou Samuelson shoots as UCLA's Kennedy

Connecticut's Katie Lou Samuelson shoots as UCLA's Kennedy Burke, left, defends during the second half of a regional semifinal game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Bridgeport, Conn. Credit: AP / Jessica Hill

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — There were a few uneasy early moments for the fiercely loyal fans of the home-state team who were anticipating yet another easy victory. As one spectator in the first row acknowledged, “We’re kind of spoiled.”

So when Connecticut fell behind 9-2 against UCLA in a Bridgeport Region semifinal on Saturday, a capacity crowd of 8,830 at Webster Bank Arena basically produced a Long Island Sound of silence. Of course, neither the Huskies’ coach nor their players shared that concern. Geno Auriemma did not get up from his seat nor call a timeout. He let his players do what they do best: respond.

Which they did, outscoring UCLA 35-9 in the next 10 1⁄2 minutes to take a 19-point lead en route to an 86-71 victory.

“We like to say that to play with us, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” forward Gabby Williams said. “They came out hard. They came out aggressive. But there was 37 minutes left to play. The shots weren’t falling in those first few minutes. Once they started to fall, once we started to execute better on defense, the game kind of fell into place.”

Though the Huskies never turned it into a laugher — in fact, they didn’t smile much in the postgame handshake line — they did defeat the Bruins comfortably for their NCAA-record 110th straight victory. The Huskies (35-0) will face Oregon here at 7 p.m. Monday with a trip to the Final Four in Dallas next weekend at stake. UConn has won the last four NCAA championships.

“Teams are going to go on runs. The important thing is to stop the runs as quickly as we can,” said forward Napheesa Collier, who had 27 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. “We did that and we adjusted pretty well.”

As usual, Connecticut shared the wealth as well as the basketball. Williams had 17 points, six assists and nine rebounds. Katie Lou Samuelson contributed 15 points and the Huskies’ other double-digit scorer for the season, Kia Nurse, had nine points on three three-pointers.

It was the team’s fifth starter, however, who provided the biggest boost. Guard Saniya Chong, who averages only eight points a game, scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half, making three of four field-goal attempts (two from downtown) and sinking all four free throws. When the Bruins refused to go quietly, cutting a 20-point lead to 12 and missing a three-pointer that could have cut it to single digits with 1:39 left, Chong was able to break the UCLA press.

“At times it seemed like she was the only person we could really trust with the ball,” Williams said. “She was able to penetrate their zone and handle their full-court pressure.”

Jordin Canada led the Bruins with 20 points. Monique Billings had 17 points and 16 rebounds and Kari Korver, cousin of Cleveland Cavaliers sharpshooter Kyle Korver, shot 5-for-11 from three-point range for 15 points.

“Some of Saniya’s success was my fault,” Korver said with a rueful grin. “There were times I was trying to help inside and I shouldn’t have. She got open threes. One time I was pressuring her and she got a wide-open layup. She did a great job.”

Nurse’s three-pointer with 6:17 remaining gave the Huskies a 76-56 lead but represented UConn’s final field goal. Because of constant fouling and two long delays for video reviews, the pace of the game slowed considerably in the closing minutes, which partly explained why the Huskies’ players showed little emotion immediately afterward. “We were happy once we got back into the locker room,” Williams said, “but we were exhausted, and the looks on our faces was a result of how the last few minutes dragged.”

Auriemma’s stoic expression was rooted in something deeper. “I was kind of disappointed and I know they were disappointed because they pride themselves on being able to finish things out,” he said. “Some of that was we were tired and some of it, we made bonehead mistakes. We got tired mentally, and that bothered me.”

UConn has raised the bar so high, even the coach has become a little spoiled.


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