BRIDGEPORT - Their newest T-shirts read “Cut the Net” and the players on the UConn women’s basketball team wore them proudly Monday night.
But no ladders were needed following the top-seeded Huskies’ 90-52 win over No. 10 Oregon in the NCAA Tournament Bridgeport Regional final at Webster Bank Arena. Though it is not a team rule - associate head coach Chris Dailey asked the starters on the bench in the final seconds if they wanted to do it - they maintained their tradition that started in 2009 that the only time they cut down a net is after the national championship is secured.
“That is what our program is about,” UConn All-American forward Gabby Williams said. “We don’t want to settle, I guess. It’s like we’re focused on the next step. We know there’s more we want to do.
“CD did ask us and we said we didn’t want to. We haven’t done it before, and we aren’t going to start doing it now.”
UConn (36-0 and winner of 111 straight) will take on Oklahoma City Regional representative Mississippi State in the second game of the national semifinal doubleheader at the American Airlines Center in Dallas Friday night. Stanford and South Carolina will meet in the first game. The final is set for Sunday night.
The last time the Huskies cut down the nets at the regionals was in 2008 after rallying from a 14-point deficit to beat Rutgers in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was the first Final Four for their senior class, ending a four-year drought. They lost to Stanford in the national semifinals at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, but it was the first of what is now a NCAA record 10 consecutive Final Four appearances.
No one else has been more to five straight. The second-longest current streak is one, shared by the other 2017 participants.
“It’s such a hard feat to accomplish in so many ways,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It only takes one loss. You’re not playing best out of five or best out of seven. So in all those 10 years, all it took was one loss at the wrong time during March and you’re out. So for us to have gone 10 years of March in a row and not having lost a game through a whole different cast of characters, over all that time, that’s pretty darned good.”
The Huskies have won 40 consecutive postseason games dating back to a loss to Notre Dame in the 2013 Big East Tournament final. They’ve won 28 NCAA Tournament games in a row.
While they did not cut down the nets, there was quite a bit of celebrating being done by the players on the bench as the clock ran down, more so than in recent years.
“There is definitely some excitement to that,” UConn All-American guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. “Coach is pretty excited. It is amazing, and it just shows what they’re doing is right. The biggest thing they do is try to recruit the right group of people and try to make sure everyone is willing to be a part of this program and is willing to be fully committed and fully excited no matter who is doing what. You’re still here for the team.”
The latest Final Four berth is UConn’s 18th, tying Tennessee for the most. The Lady Vols had an 18-9 lead on the Huskies after winning their eighth NCAA title in 2008. Auriemma also passed the late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in NCAA Tournament wins with his 113th Monday night.
“Obviously, this is a special one for us,” UConn guard Kia Nurse said. “For us to be in this position when people didn’t think we were going to be, and for us to have played as well as we did tonight to get there, it’s a good feeling.”
Regional Most Outstanding Player Napheesa Collier had back-to-back double-doubles and averaged 27.5 points on 61.1 percent shooting, 13.0 rebounds, and 3.5 blocked shots in the wins over UCLA and Oregon. The All-American forward became the seventh UConn sophomore to reach the 1,000-point plateau when she nailed a jumper - her final shot of the game against the Ducks - with 6:46 left.
Collier and Samuelson became the highest-scoring duo in a single season in UConn history Monday night. Their total of 1,475 points - Collier 743, Samuelson 732 - through 36 games passed the mark of Maya Moore and Tina Charles (736 and 708 respectively for a total of 1,444) set seven years ago in 39 games.
The Huskies did maintain their tradition with Collier of messing up the hair of the MOP after her name is announced. Ironically, Collier was the leader of the pack in getting to Samuelson at the American Athletic Conference Tournament earlier this month but no one could tell.
“I did do it, but Lou fixed it really quickly,” Collier said with a laugh.
UConn made quick work of Oregon (23-14) as all-tournament selection Saniya Chong started a 17-0 run with two 3-pointers and ended it with a steal and layup to give UConn a 23-4 lead. The Ducks got within 13 in the second quarter but 13 unanswered points, six by Collier, doubled the lead and it was 49-24 at the break.
Oregon got no closer as Williams scored the first four points of the third quarter and the all-tournament pick would finish with 25 points, six rebounds, and four steals.
“I’m really proud of how we have matured,” Williams said. “At the beginning of the year, we just made really tough plays at the right time. Now we’ve put ourselves in the position where we don’t necessarily have to make those super, out-of-this-world plays that may or may not go well for us. We have grown up and stepped up and we’re playing like a really mature team right now.”
After the on-court celebration wrapped up, it was freshman Kyla Irwin that carried the regional championship trophy to the locker room. For Irwin, Molly Bent and Crystal Dangerfield it’s their first Final Four.
“We worked really hard this year to be where we are,” Collier said. “You may not see it from the outside, but it was a grind for us this year. So the fact that we are where we are, I’m really proud of us and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.”