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    UConn Women's Basketball
    Friday, September 22, 2023

    UConn beats UCLA 86-71 to advance to regional final in Bridgeport

    UConn’s Gabby Wililams pulls down a rebound between UCLA’s Monique Billings, left, and Kari Korver during Saturday’s Bridgeport Regional semifinal at at Webster Bank Arena. Williams had 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists as the top-seeded Huskies defeated the No. 4 Bruins 86-71 to advance to Monday’s regional final against Oregon. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Bridgeport — UConn first led by 20 points not long before halftime Saturday afternoon. Katie Lou Samuelson made a leaping pass to fling the ball down low to Napheesa Collier, who was fouled and converted a three-point play. Collier then scored on an assist from Crystal Dangerfield to make it 42-22 in the Huskies' favor.

    But this wasn't a day, nor an opponent (UCLA), for the lead to go ping-ponging skyward.

    “When we got up 20, I didn't think it was like being up 20 against somebody else,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We played a really, really good team. It was a grind for our guys.”

    Yes, the top-seeded UConn women's basketball team dispatched No. 4 UCLA from the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 before 8,830 fans at Webster Bank Arena, hanging on for an 86-71 victory over the Bruins and advancing to Monday's regional final against freshman-laden Oregon, one step away from what would be the Huskies' 10th straight Final Four.

    But perhaps UConn's Gabby Williams summed this one up best when asked why the players appeared somewhat stoic following the victory.

    “I think were just kind of exhausted. It was a long final three minutes,” Williams said. “We were happy once we got back into the locker room … I think the look on our face is just a result of how the last few minutes dragged for us.”

    UConn (35-0) went the final 6 minutes, 15 seconds without a field goal. The Huskies scored to make it 76-56 on a 3-pointer by Kia Nurse before going 10-for-14 from the free throw line from that point on. There were also a few timeouts and a couple official's reviews during that time and Auriemma used just a six-player rotation against the Bruins.

    It was UConn's 110th straight victory and tied Auriemma with Tennessee legend Pat Summitt for the most NCAA tournament victories in history with 112.

    “These two here, especially, they were amazing,” Auriemma said of Williams and Napheesa Collier, sitting beside him on the postgame dais. “They just kept playing and playing and playing and making a play when we need them to make a play.”

    Collier, whom Auriemma said the day before that he would choose over any other player in the country for her offensive talents, finished shooting 10-for-16 with 27 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and no turnovers. Williams had 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

    In addition, UConn got a major contribution from senior point guard Saniya Chong which covered 38 minutes, yielding 16 points, five rebounds and three assists. Chong's previous high for minutes played in a regional was 10.

    “That's probably more points tonight than she scored in the three previous NCAA tournaments combined,” Auriemma said of Chong. “That's how little she played the last three years. … Saniya made some big plays, big shots. Sometimes it never happens (for a player). I'm really thrilled for her that it's happening.”

    UCLA (25-9) started the game on a 9-2 run over the first three minutes, with UConn not taking its first lead until there was 3:22 to play in the first quarter. Samuelson (15 points) scored off the dribble to tie the game at 11 and gave the Huskies a 13-11 edge with two free throws. Chong and Nurse followed with consecutive 3-pointers to cushion the lead at 19-11.

    UConn led 48-31 at halftime, at which point Samuelson and Collier had 14 points each.

    Following a three-point play by Williams which made it 60-40, however, UCLA went on a 12-5 run to end the third quarter, including a string of seven straight points which featured a 3-pointer by Nicole Kornet and an inside look from Monique Billings to cut the Huskies' lead to 65-52.

    The Bruins still trailed by only 12 when extraordinary junior point guard Jordin Canada scored to make it 80-68 with 2:01 to play. Canada finished with 20 points and 11 assists, while Billings had 17 points and 16 rebounds.

    UCLA coach Cori Close, whose team ended its season for the second straight season in the Sweet 16 at Bridgeport, was choked up following the game, but set a goal for the Bruins to be able to compete on the same plane as UConn by the time the teams meet later this year during the 2017-18 regular season.

    “I really believe we're knocking at the door of the nation's elite on a consistent basis, but we haven't thrown the door down,” Close said. “That's what you've got to do. You've got to want it so bad that you're not knocking on the door, you're throwing it open, busting through that next level.”


    UConn's Saniya Chong goes sprawling after being fouled in a collision with UCLA's Jordin Canada during Saturday's Bridgeport Regional semifinal at Webster Bank Arena. UConn won 86-71 to advance to Monday's final against Oregon. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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