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Chong's journey has been rewarding

Bridgeport — Chris Dailey, UConn's associate women's basketball coach, was asked about the starting lineup's only senior, Saniya Chong.

“Saniya. Saniya. Where's Saniya?” Dailey said with a smile, scanning the UConn locker room Sunday afternoon. “Saniya, I'm tired of talking about you.”

She has only Chong to blame for that. Chong, who averaged 2.2 points in 10.2 minutes per game during the NCAA tournament in her career prior to Saturday, came up with 16 points, five rebounds, three assists and only two turnovers in 38 minutes of UConn's 86-71 victory over UCLA in the Sweet 16.

“At times, it seemed like she was the only person we could really trust with the ball,” UConn junior Gabby Williams said of Chong following the win, which put the top-seeded Huskies (35-0) one game away from a 10th straight Final Four bid.

The performance immediately took UConn coach Geno Auriemma on a guided tour of Chong's journey since he began recruiting her from Ossining (N.Y.) High School.

“I went to see her play (in high school) one night,” Auriemma said Saturday afternoon. “I don't know, she must have had 45 points or something. If she could have passed it to herself, she would have back then.”

But while Auriemma describes Chong's growth as a “struggle,” she doesn't really see it that way.

“I basically just take it as a challenge. High school to college is a different experience anyway,” said the reserved Chong. “Everything is harder, from the girls you're playing against to going to school. You have to find a way to do what you need to do.”

“It's not supposed to be easy,” Dailey seconded. “I couldn't be happier for her. She held her destiny in her own hands.”

Still, there were times, Auriemma said, he thought Chong, who averaged 34.4 points per game as a senior in high school, was starting to get a feel for the college level. She would start a handful of games.

“She would get it going for a week. We would always say, 'all right, this is it,'” Auriemma said. “Then it would go away. Then she would get it back for another week. 'All right, we got it.' Then it would go away. It was like that every year.

“This year, it's all kind of fallen into place for her. She deserves it. She's worked hard. … She's hung in there.”

Among the 5-foot-8 Chong's highlights from the win over UCLA was a ball fake at the top of the key in the fourth quarter, which caused her defender to leave her feet. Chong instead kept the ball, drove down the lane and dished to Napheesa Collier for a layup. Chong survived a collision with UCLA guard Jordin Canada that was more like a football play. She shot 3-for-5 from 3-point range and 5-for-6 from the foul line.

“Today, the effort and play of Saniya, I thought it was the difference in the game,” Auriemma said. “We put her in a situation that I wanted her on the free throw line at the end of the game because I trust her. And we put her on Jordin Canada a lot because I trust her. That's the best thing you can get from your coach is they trust you.”

That's a far cry from what Auriemma said she couldn't do coming into her career at UConn: play defense, blend with other good players, do what you're told and not whatever you feel like doing.

Dailey said, however, Chong has always had a close relationship with the other UConn players, including Breanna Stewart, who graduated last season and was the WNBA's No. 1 overall draft pick.

“I want to say she's a good egg. She's a good person. She has a lot of friends on campus,” Dailey said of Chong.

“There are times she pulls me aside and talks to me, just about staying in the game and telling me to keep my head up,” UConn freshman guard Crystal Dangerfield said.

Chong started this season with a 16-point performance in a narrow win over Florida State and, as the season has gone on she's played an increasing number of minutes, 38 in a February showdown with South Carolina televised on ESPN2.

She is third in the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.56 and was named a third team all-star by the American Athletic Conference.

Against Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Chong did not score but had seven assists and two turnovers. Things are definitely feeling a little bit different now, she said, as UConn zeroes in on one last Final Four berth in Chong's career.

“As a senior, it's like, 'Wow. This is really it,'” Chong said. “Go hard or go home. It's pretty bittersweet. … I'm really pleased with my four years here. I got a little bit of trust from my coaches and teammates. Working hard is paying off in the end.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

BRIDGEPORT REGIONAL

At Webster Bank Arena

Regional Semifinals

Saturday's Results

Oregon 77, Maryland 63

UConn 86, UCLA 71

Regional Championship

Monday's Game

Oregon (23-13) vs. UConn (35-0), 7 p.m.

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