BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- UConn won its first three tournament games by an average of 44.8 points. That was not the case Monday, but the Huskies did prevail. After taking the first punch from UConn, Texas hung around for most of the first half before ultimately losing by 21 points, 86-65.
In the midst of a topsy-turvy tournament, the Huskies' punching their ticket to a ninth consecutive Final Four is a pick that was actually correct.
The win did not come easily for the Huskies, however. Although Connecticut shot well down the stretch (56.4 percent for the game), it was the focused play of the defense that pushed the Huskies over the hump. That defense, as is often the case, was led by Moriah Jefferson.
Jefferson did not have her best offensive game. The 5-foot-7 senior shot 4-of-10 from the field for 11 points. She added one steal and, perhaps most importantly, nine assists. Jefferson knows her contributions away from the stat sheet matter, and that's what she strives for every game.
"No matter who she's guarding, she's going to do her best to make sure that they don't score," UConn star Breanna Stewart, who had 21 points and 13 rebounds, said after the game. Morgan Tuck led the Huskies with 22 points.
It seems so simple, but defense is often talked about as something that demands effort. Jefferson shows her toughness through that effort, and it's a core part of the Connecticut identity.
Most of the intrigue in Connecticut's play lies with its superstar, Stewart, but the members of the senior class, Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson, are more like the Three Musketeers than a superhero with two sidekicks. It shows. They are happy to have made the Final Four but also happy to have done it with each other.
"It gets tougher and tougher every time," Jefferson said. "To be able to do it again with Morgan and Stewie for the fourth consecutive time -- it's amazing."
The emotional center of Connecticut's scrappiness and will to win falls squarely on the guard's shoulders. As a point guard, she directs and serves as the emotional leader, and she sometimes drifts into an extension of Coach Geno Auriemma himself.
"She is basically coach out there on the floor," sophomore guard Kia Nurse said. "When you have that constantly, someone telling you where to be, that makes my life a lot easier."
Jefferson is a tough-as-nails player. She is known for her speed but is undoubtedly full of grit. In a seemingly innocuous (though terrifying for the Huskies faithful) moment, Jefferson went up for a layup and came down awkwardly on her left ankle. She lay on the hardwood for a brief moment before getting up and hobbling surprisingly quickly to the other end of the floor, where she immediately got into her defensive stance.
Her teammates were not particularly concerned. They knew she would be there for them.
"When Mo went down, we knew she would get up," Stewart said. "We knew that our senior guard, our point guard, wasn't going to leave the game unless she was unable to move, unable to walk, that kind of thing. She wanted to be out there with us because she knew that we needed her help."
Jefferson didn't come out until the substitutes entered in the final moments of the game. Her ankle stung a little bit, she said, but she just pulled her laces extra tight and pushed through.
"It hurts, but you've got to get up," she said. "They were about to score on my teammates, and I couldn't let that happen."
There is no denying the ever disruptive Jefferson played her heart out -- even if the box score doesn't exactly reflect her effort. There is no substitute for her contributions on the defensive end, and the Huskies will need her in Indianapolis.
Stranger things have happened in March than Connecticut losing on a bad night. There are no guarantees this late in the game -- not even for Connecticut. The seniors, whose record is 148-5 at UConn, are excited for the Final Four, but it's clear they're also focused. The job isn't finished.
They do, however, have one giant advantage: experience. In a Final Four that has three first-time qualifiers in Syracuse, Washington and Oregon State, the Huskies' experience could mean that much more.
"Well, they have been there and done it, so they understand what that pressure feels like," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "They have a confidence level from the experiences that they have had that's unique."
The upsets remind us all that missteps can happen, and everyone is vulnerable. In a quest to win the national championship, getting there is essential to achieving the goal Connecticut has laid out for itself. The gravity of the moment is not lost on Auriemma.
"Some great things can happen next weekend, but you have to be there," Auriemma said with a hint of a smirk in the postgame press conference. "We did the hard part."