BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies are headed back to a familiar place — the Final Four.
Breanna Stewart scored 21 points and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 17 to help top-seed UConn rout Kentucky 83-53 on Monday night and advance to a record sixth-straight national semifinal.
"It definitely doesn't get old," UConn senior Kelly Faris said. "Each year is different, special in its own way. This is our last go-around, we want to go out with a bang. I'm fortunate to be part of this program where we make it every year. We never are satisfied until we get to that final game."
The Huskies will face either Notre Dame or Duke in the national semifinals on Sunday in New Orleans. The Irish and Blue Devils play Tuesday night.
"Anytime you're fortunate to play in the Final Four you're going to have to beat two great teams," Auriemma said. "You don't stumble your way into the Final Four that's for sure. Whoever we play Sunday that's our main focus right now. After Sunday we'll play on Tuesday or we're going home. Right now we have a great chance to win a national championship."
The road to an eighth title got a bit easier for the Huskies (33-4) when defending national champion Baylor lost to Louisville on Sunday night. Still they could face the Irish, who have eliminated them in the past two Final Fours and won seven of the past eight meetings between the teams, including all three this season.
UConn broke a tie with Stanford (2008-12), LSU (2004-08) and itself (2000-04) by reaching the Final Four again.
It was the second straight season UConn beat Kentucky in the regional finals. The Huskies topped the Wildcats by 15 last year 105 miles to the north of Bridgeport in Kingston, R.I.
This game wasn't as close. Kentucky stayed close for the first 10 minutes with their "40 minutes of dread" defense. Then UConn turned up its own defensive intensity.
The Huskies trailed 23-22 with just 9 minutes left in the first half. That's when Stewart — honored as the outstanding player of the Bridgeport Regional — and UConn's "no-name" defense took over allowing three points the rest of the half.
Mosqueda-Lewis said that Auriemma tells his defense to be like "sharks" so that's what the Huskies have become on defense.
"When there's blood in the water, you smell it and you go after it," she said. "We're just going to keep going after it, it's like a domino effect, once we get one steal, we'll get another and another."
Kentucky missed 13 of its final 14 shots in the half with the only make coming when Jelleah Sidney banked in a 3-pointer from the wing.
While UConn was playing lockdown defense, Stewart was dominating on the offensive end. The 6-foot-4 star, who was the national high school player of the year last season, scored nine points and had a vicious two-handed block during that closing run.
After Sidney's 3-pointer, Stewart calmly converted a three-point play on the other end. UConn led 48-26 at the half.
Kentucky couldn't get within 20 in the second half.
Stewart has really stepped her game up over the past few weeks. After struggling through the middle part of the season, the heralded first-year has averaged 16.4 points since the start of the Big East tournament.
It's been an unusual season for UConn, which for the first time in 19 years didn't win either the Big East regular season or tournament title. Now the Huskies are two wins away from an eighth national championship.
This was the 19th time in the past 23 seasons that UConn had reached the regional final. They have made the Final Four 14 times overall, including the last six.
"I don't know more things in sports that are more impressive," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said of UConn's streak. "They have talented players who are extremely well coached and work extremely hard."
None of the regional final games during this current run have been close with only Rutgers coming within 10 in 2008. UConn's lead ballooned to 36 points in the second half of this game. When the final buzzer sounded Mosqueda-Lewis jumped into the arms of Stewart to celebrate.
Auriemma got a gritty effort out of junior center Stefanie Dolson, who has a stress fracture in her right ankle and an injured left foot as well. She wore a brace on her left leg and a compression sock on her right one. While she only scored two points, she had 11 rebounds and four assists.
"She might have been leading rebounder in whole tournament," Auriemma said. "She's grown up and changed her mindset. What I most admired about her this tournament was every time she was on the bench she kept looking at me why am I out. That for somebody who is hurting that much who didn't practice yesterday and walked through shootaround that epitomizes the spirit we have right now on this team."
The loss closed a record year for the Wildcats (30-6), who finished with the most victories in school history. Not bad for a school rich in basketball tradition on the men's side. Still Mitchell was left searching for the school's first trip to the Final Four.
The Wildcats have made the NCAA tournament in each of the past four seasons and reached the regional finals in three of those years falling short each time.
"I don't think we're going to get discouraged," Mitchell said. "I know our players wanted us to perform better than we did. If anyone started to think it's not going to happen they're not inside our program. We'll get there."
Senior A'dia Mathies, the two-time SEC player of the year, had a quiet game scoring only 14 points with 11 of them coming in the second half. She finished as the winningest player in Kentucky history.
"It looks a lot different when she's walking out the door than when she was walking in the door," Mitchell said. "I hate how we performed the way we did and sent her out this way. I hope the contribution she made and impact she made doesn't get lost in a real tough 40 minutes for us."
Kastine Evans, who hit the big 3-pointer to help beat Delaware in the regional semifinals had just two points on 1 of 9 shooting. Her older brother R.J., who played on the UConn's men's basketball team this season, sat behind the Wildcats bench in a Kentucky shirt.
The Huskies have won 43 of their past 44 NCAA games in the state of Connecticut, including going 9-1 in Bridgeport. The lone blemish came against Duke in 2006 in the regional final.
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