Pair of perfect teams punch tickets
UConn (38-0), Notre Dame (36-0) win Monday to advance to Final Four
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Yes, we've been talking and writing and thinking about it for a while. But now, it's official: The Women's Final Four will have two perfect teams. And both of them had to expend some real sweat Monday to get out of the Elite Eight.
Just looking at the final scores might not tell you that, as both top-seeded Connecticut (38-0) and Notre Dame (36-0) won by double digits. But watching the games, you knew that the Huskies and Fighting Irish weren't just handed their tickets to Nashville by teams that considered themselves overmatched.
"BYU and Texas A&M, both of them, came out fighting," UConn center Stefanie Dolson said of the Huskies' foes here at the Lincoln Regional. "They made us work. Tonight, Texas A&M was very physical down low. [But] it shows that even when we aren't making a lot of shots, we can still win games."
Of course, "not making a lot of shots" is a matter of perception, isn't it? Maybe by their absurdly lofty standards, coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies didn't have a stellar offensive performance in beating the Aggies 69-54.
But, heck, they still shot 48.2 percent from the field (27-of-56), made 8 of 9 free throws and had just 10 turnovers. Dolson had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds (and 8 blocks), and the Lincoln Regional's most valuable player Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led the way with 17 points. She also had seven rebounds and two assists, which followed a 19-point, 13-rebound, 4-assist performance against BYU on Saturday.
"I'm getting a little closer and closer to being my normal self," said Mosqueda-Lewis, who has dealt with elbow injuries and mononucleosis this season. "Now that I'm finally helping my teammates the way I know I can, it's completely gratifying."
UConn is making its 15th trip to the Women's Final Four and the program's seventh in a row. The Huskies will be trying to earn what would be a record ninth NCAA title.
"I think a lot of people can take things for granted, but our team doesn't," said Dolson, who high-fived all the UConn cheerleaders, hugged Jonathan the Husky mascot, saluted the band, and gave a little boy an autograph before she ran smiling off the floor following the game.
"For me being a senior, this is our fourth Final Four together for Bria [Hartley] and I. I'm just so ecstatic about getting there again."
Unlike the game that preceded it at Notre Dame, the UConn-Texas A&M contest wasn't filled with whistles. There were 25 total fouls called, and both teams attempted just nine free throws.
Baylor alone had more fouls than that -- 27 -- in its 88-69 loss to Notre Dame, which was called for 19 fouls. And there was a pall cast over the Irish's victory because of standout center Natalie Achonwa's knee injury late in the game.
Everyone who follows women's basketball is crossing their fingers hoping that the senior Achonwa is OK for the Final Four (she is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Tuesday). Meanwhile, UConn appears to be going into Nashville as strong as the Huskies can be.
It's well-established that UConn doesn't have a lot of depth; only one player beyond the starting five -- Kiah Stokes -- played any significant minutes for the Huskies on Monday.
But in her 15 minutes, Stokes did exactly what the Huskies needed her to do: rebound. She pulled down seven boards and blocked a shot, and contributed to a defensive effort that limited the Aggies to 35.3 percent shooting (24-of-68).
And that's the bottom-line story of this UConn team, isn't it? It's why UConn is so scary/frustrating for any opponent who hopes to stop the Huskies' run of perfection. On a night when UConn's sophomore superstar, Breanna Stewart, didn't play like a superstar, the Huskies still won. That's because every starter does something to help, at a minimum, and each one actually can be the star of the game on any given night.
"The fact that my team played so well, we're just finding ways to win," said Stewart, who still had 13 points and four assists. "The versatility -- there are so many people who can step up and score and do other things. I had faith that they would do that, especially in the first half when I wasn't really able to contribute."
All five UConn starters scored in double figures; Hartley (14 points) and Moriah Jefferson (11) combined for 11 assists.
This is not new for UConn; the Huskies over the years typically have been built that way. There have been seasons in which UConn teams have been more reliant on a great player -- none more so than the 2003 and '04 teams with Diana Taurasi -- but even those squads would get consistent contributions from role players.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said he thinks all five of UConn's current starters will be WNBA first-round draft picks when their time comes, and he's almost certainly going to be proven right. But as great as the individual parts are, the total package is greater yet.
Meanwhile, Blair's Aggies really were playing their best by the end of the season. Texas A&M will bring back most of its key players, including sophomore standouts Courtney Walker (who had 14 points Monday), Courtney Williams (13) and Jordan Jones (12).
On a night when Breanna Stewart didn't play like a superstar, the Huskies still won. That's because every starter does something to help, at a minimum, and each one actually can be the star of the game on any given night.
The Aggies were the last of the SEC's eight NCAA tournament teams to be eliminated, and they -- along with South Carolina -- should be favorites in the league next season.
"Give Geno credit," Blair said. "We don't want to lose to someone who comes in second or third, so hopefully he can go win the thing and live up to them being No. 1."
The Huskies now wait to see who they play next: either No. 2 seed Stanford or No. 4 seed North Carolina out of the Stanford Regional. Notre Dame will meet the winner between No. 3 seed Louisville and No. 4 seed Maryland in the Louisville Regional.
The past three seasons, UConn and Notre Dame have faced off in the national semifinals, while being rivals in the old Big East. This year, with Notre Dame moving to the ACC and UConn in the new American Athletic Conference, the two Goliaths did not meet in the regular season. But they have been steadily moving closer and closer to what would be a historical showdown in college basketball.
Certainly, neither one of them is going to be looking at that matchup now; they both still have to win one more game to get there. And these are two programs that are extremely disciplined about not getting ahead of themselves -- even if a lot of fans and women's basketball observers have been thinking about their possible showdown for months.
When asked about it, though, Hartley credited the Irish for helping make UConn better with their matchups in 2011-13, when the programs really did seem to bring out the best in each other.
"I think it's awesome; the rivalry between us and Notre Dame was great for women's basketball," Hartley said. "People loved coming out to see that game, and they loved watching on TV. It brought so much attention to women's basketball. I think we need games like that."
It's still a full step on the bracket away from happening, and everyone will be hoping for the best news about Achonwa. But "a game like that" could be what we get for the national championship.
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