Bridgeport Region Recap: UConn again

Freshman Stewart amazes as UConn advances to The Big Easy

BRIDGEPORT, CT — All it took was nine minutes of Connecticut mastery – and a group of freshmen who played like the greats of Huskies teams of the past – to undo Kentucky’s “40 minutes of dread” on its way to another Final Four.

Freshman Breanna Stewart scored 21 points and the Huskies ended the first half on a 26 -3 run spurred by their freshmen and suffocating defense to advance to their 14th Final Four – and its sixth season running – with an 83-53 win over the No. 2 Kentucky in the Bridgeport Regional final. The Huskies will take on the winner of the Norfolk Regional final between fellow Big East member Notre Dame and Duke in New Orleans, host city of the 2013 Final Four.

In a program that has seen many players play well beyond their years as underclassmen, Stewart unleashed a versatile game that reminded us why she won national player of the year out of high school in Syracuse, N.Y., adding four rebounds, two assists and three blocks – a couple of those rejections in the show-stopping category – along with reaching over the 20-point plateau for the eighth time this season. Stewart joined Diana Taurasi (2001) and Maya Moore (2008) as the only other UConn freshmen to be name Most Outstanding Player of a regional, and seems like even the sky is not a limit as to how good she can become in a Connecticut uniform.

Probably the most fitting play in the game involving Stewart was an athletic, emphatic block on Kentucky’s Bria Goss with 11 seconds left and UConn up by 32, making a final statement before the coronation on their way to New Orleans.

“Other teams don’t ever expect her to block shots the way she does. To be around the rim as much as she is, to be able to make plays that most kids 6-4, 6-5 can’t make,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “They just can’t make them.”

Stewart deferred the credit to her teammates, acting the part of a freshman just trying to fit in.

UConn-Final Four
Head coach Geno Auriemma (far right) and the UConn women will have participated in each of the Women’s Final Four events held in New Orleans (1991, 2004, 2013)

“The awards don’t matter as long as we win,” Stewart said. “I’m just happy to help the team right now.”

While Stewart was helping the team (and then some), Connecticut’s other freshman, guard Moriah Jefferson, and post player Morgan Tuck once again gave a spark off the bench and it coincided with the Huskies putting the game out of reach.

Jefferson, almost inarguably the team’s best perimeter defender/pest, scored 10 points and had four steals. One of those thefts was a poke away from Kentucky point guard Jennifer O’Neill at midcourt. Jefferson dove for the loose ball and subsequently passed the ball from her knees to a streaking Stewart, who finished the fast break with a layup to open up at 30-point bulge, eliciting a standing ovation from the partisan Webster Bank Arena crowd.

Tuck, playing more meaningful minutes because of a right leg injury that limited starting center Stefanie Dolson to just 24 minutes tonight, chipped in with six points after eight in the regional semifinals against Maryland.

In the two games in Bridgeport combined, the three UConn freshmen (Stweart, Jefferson, Tuck) scored just over 45 percent of the team’s points (72 of 159).

“They are not playing like freshman,” junior center Stefanie Dolson said, who averaged 10.5 rebounds in the two regional games despite a painful right leg injury suffered on Saturday. “They’re really playing out of their mind right now and doing so well, kind of going out there and being confident and not second-guessing themselves and just playing basketball. They’re having fun, we’re having fun playing with them, and we’re excited.”

Playing again in a mostly hostile environment for the second game running, the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament runners-up rough-and-tumbled its way to a virtual stalemate against UConn in a physical start similar to the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 win over sixth-seeded Delaware on Saturday. After a foul on Tuck, Southeastern Conference player of the year A’dia Mathies hit one of two free throws to give the Wildcats a 23-22 lead with 9:08 in the first half.

Then came the UConn onslaught to end the half that all but punched their ticket to the Crescent City, with most of the damage coming from the older guard.

Senior Caroline Doty hit a three from the left corner on the ensuing possession to give the Huskies the lead back at 25-23 – the last of five lead changes in the first half. Another senior, Kelly Farris, hit a layup almost a minute later to stretch the lead to four, and hit four free throws in the next couple of minutes to give UConn a 12-point lead at 35-23. The 17-0 run was capped off by a Stewart two-hand block of Bria Goss’s layup and subsequent Stewart layup on the other end to put UConn up 39-23.

Faris finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, while sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 17 points. Both were named to the Bridgeport All-Regional team, along with Stewart.

“I believe we were shooting a lot of jumpers and they caught us on rebounding and scored in transition,” said Mathies, whose Kentucky team missed nine consecutive shots, committed three turnovers and missed a free throw during the 17-0 first-half Husky run. “They just made a lot of layups and got a big lead.”

Mathies led Kentucky with 14 points. O’Neill, who also made the All-Regional Team, was the only other Wildcat in double figures in scoring with 13.

Wildcats-Elite 8
Jennifer O’Neill (2nd from L) and the Wildcats lose in the Elite 8 round for the third time in four seasons (AP)

Mathies and Brittany Henderson, the team’s other senior, leave the program as the winningest senior class in Kentucky history (111). Unfortunately, they both leave the school having had three chances to make it to their first Final Four (which would also have been a first Final Four for the program), but coming up short in all three games, including losing last year’s Kingston (R.I.) Regional final to the Huskies.

“Grateful to work with these players from Kentucky,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said, who led Kentucky to a single-season school record 30 wins this campaign. “They worked very hard and it’s disappointing. We wanted to play better tonight…real disappointed for our players.

“This is the winningest class of all-time. We will get better from the disappointment.”

As for UConn, they will look to get over the disappointment of coming up short in the Final Four two seasons running as they head to the Big Easy for next Sunday’s national semifinal. And with prohibitive favorite Baylor getting knocked out in the Sweet 16 by fellow Big East member Louisville in the Oklahoma City regional on Sunday, the time to snap the Huskies two-year national championship “drought” may very well be nigh.

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