BRIDGEPORT, Conn. â€” After watching UConn’s NCAA Tournament dominance mostly from the bench for three seasons, Saniya Chong finally made her mark.
Chong scored 16 points and came up with big plays on both ends of the court, and the top-seeded Huskies beat UCLA 86-71 on Saturday to advance to the Bridgeport Regional final.
“I was looking at the stat sheet, that’s more points tonight than in maybe the three previous NCAA Tournaments combined,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I said before the conference tournament at Mohegan that there are two guys we need them to play at, or above, their level and Saniya’s one of them. Today the effort and play of Saniya was, I thought, the difference in the game.”
It was the 110th straight victory for the No. 1 Huskies, who will face 10th-seeded Oregon on Monday night. The Ducks pulled off another surprise, topping Maryland to advance to their first Elite Eight.
“They don’t know enough to be either intimidated or pressured or anything you’d associate with a team doing this for the first time,” Auriemma said of the Ducks. “They are having fun and enjoying the moment as they should. It’s really neat to see. … I said when Kelly Graves was hired that it won’t be long before they’re in the Final Four. I hope it’s not this early, but it won’t be long.”
Napheesa Collier had 27 points and 14 rebounds for UConn (35-0), which shot 55.6
Buoyed by the success of their Pac-12 partner, the fourth-seed Bruins jumped out a 9-2 lead over UConn before the Huskies scored 17 of the next 19 points. The seven-point deficit matched the Huskies’ largest this season.
The Huskies led by nine after one quarter and 17 at the half.
“We like to say that to play with us it’s a marathon not a sprint,” said Gabby Williams, who had 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “They came out hard, aggressive, there was 37 minutes left to play.”
The victory tied Auriemma with Pat Summitt for most NCAA Tournament victories. The two Hall of Fame coaches have 112 tournament victories.
Jordin Canada had 20 points and 11 assists for UCLA (25-9).
“We had some mental lapses in the second quarter and that’s when they got on their run,” Canada said. “For a second, we looked defeated and that’s when they capitalized. I think it was our lack of focus.”
The Bruins cut into a 19-point deficit in the third quarter, making it 62-50 with seven straight points late in the period. Monique Billings sandwiched two baskets around a Kari Korver 3-pointer.
But Collier and Chong combined to score the next 11 points for UConn during an 11-4 burst to put the game away.
“This is definitely one I’ll remember,” Chong said. “At this time it’s all or nothing.”
Billings finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds for UCLA.
STILL A YEAR LEFT
Canada admitted that in the postgame handshakes Auriemma said he thought she was graduating. She’s only a junior.
“I’m assuming he thought I’m a senior,” she said smiling. “Congrats on a great career and good luck on the next level. I took it and ran with it. I told him thank you.”
Auriemma later said he remembered after the fact she was only a junior.
“Seems like she’s been there forever,” he said. “When kids start as a freshman, they feel like they’ve been there forever.”
UCLA: This was the first time in program history the Bruins reached the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons. UCLA’s best NCAA Tournament finish ever was reaching the regional final in 1999. … The Bruins fell to 0-4 all-time against UConn. The two teams will play again next year in California. … Canada’s assists were the most by a UConn opponent this season and she received a nice ovation from the crowd when she fouled out with just over a minute left.
UConn: Chong and Tierney Lawlor have a 151-1 record while at UConn, tying the school and NCAA record for most victories. … The win was the Huskies’ 27th straight in the NCAA Tournament. … Florida State led UConn by seven in the second half of the season opener. … Katie Lou Samuelson scored 14 of her 15 points in the first half. Her only point of the second half came on a free throw with 20 seconds left.
UConn will face Oregon on Monday night with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
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Doug Feinberg, The Associated Press