ALBANY, N.Y. - Less than 24 hours after its 94-65 rout of South Carolina in the NCAA Albany Regional final at the Times Union Center Monday night, the UConn women’s basketball team arrived in Columbus, Ohio, the Final Four host. The Huskies will face archrival Notre Dame - the Spokane (Washington) Regional representative - in the second national semifinal Friday night at Nationwide Arena.
The road has taken UConn to 11 consecutive NCAA Final Fours and 19 overall, both records, but it’s a journey never taken for granted.
“It is one of the hardest things to do just to get to a Final Four,” UConn senior Kia Nurse said. “Anyone that’s been to a Final Four will say that. It gets overlooked a lot around us because we do go so many times. But that’s a testament to the coaches here and what they do every day to make sure that we’re prepared and we have an opportunity to do this. We’re looking forward to Friday, my last Final Four.”
Only one four-year player in coach Geno Auriemma’s 33 seasons - Kris Lamb - did not go to a Final Four, though she was on staff as a graduate assistant for the Huskies’ 1991 run. Nurse and classmate Gabby Williams became the eighth consecutive UConn senior class to make it to four Final Fours in a row. Class of 2013 graduates Caroline Doty and Heather Buck were part of five Final Four teams as each had a medical redshirt year. The second-longest consecutive Final Four streak is five by UConn (2000-04), LSU (2004-08), and Notre Dame (2011-15). The Huskies won four national championships in that five-year stretch while the Tigers and Irish won none.
UConn is seeking its seventh NCAA title out of its current run. Three times it has lost in the Final Four semifinals - twice to Notre Dame (2011-12) and last year to Mississippi State.
“When the season starts, you’re not thinking too far ahead,” UConn junior Katie Lou Samuelson said. “But everything we did this year was to lead up to this moment and get another shot at the Final Four and get back to where we were last year. There are no guarantees that it’s going to go differently for us. We have to be ones to make the changes. We’re happy to have this opportunity again and once we’re done celebrating here (in Albany) it will be all focus, all business.”
The Huskies started the season as the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in the Associated Press poll with four returning starters including three All-Americans. They stayed in that spot through the final poll that preceded the NCAA Tournament.
But it hasn’t been easy. Samuelson suffered a left foot sprain on Nov. 17 and missed four games including her homecoming at UCLA. She’d miss a fifth game with a left ankle injury in January. Crystal Dangerfield missed two games and has dealt with painful shin splints in her left leg since New Year’s. Williams has played through a left hip issue much of the year and saw her streak of 141 consecutive games play end when she sat out the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal against Cincinnati.
Twice they overcame double-digit deficits - against Notre Dame in the fourth quarter and Texas in the first quarter - to keep their perfect record intact. After beating Saint Francis of Pennsylvania by 88 points in the NCAA first round, they beat Quinnipiac, Duke, and South Carolina by an average of 22.3 points.
“It’s been a long year filled with ups and downs,” UConn junior Azura Stevens said. “We’ve done a good job of keeping what happened last year in our minds but we don’t lose focus over it. To get back to this point where we did lose last year is a good accomplishment, but we’re not finished yet. We’ll celebrate this game but we’ll quickly turn to the next one.”
Louisville and Mississippi State will play in the first national semifinal on Friday. The Cardinals are in the Final Four for the third time, having lost to UConn in the national championship game in 2009 and 2013. The Bulldogs are back after making their first appearance last year.
“After the way it ended for us last year we were in rush to get back,” Williams said. “But you can only handle what’s right in front of you. That we’ve been able to take things one day at a time and not look ahead is why we’re in the position that we’re in.”