Get all of Kayla Lombardo’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — No.1 UConn heard the critics after its record-setting 98–38 win over No. 5 Mississippi State in the regional semifinals on Saturday.
They’re too dominant. They’re killing the women’s game. There’s no competition.
But the musings of outsiders didn’t divert the Huskies’ focus away from head coach Geno Auriemma’s message in the midst of the controversy over the past 48 hours.
“We are where we are. We are what we are. ... We do what we do,” Auriemma said Sunday in response to the detractors.
And Monday, the Huskies did just what they do, and have done, over the course of their so-far perfect season to defeat No. 2 Texas, 86–65, and advance to their ninth straight Final Four. UConn, now the winner of 73 straight games, received double-figure scoring performances from seniors Morgan Tuck, Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, who posted 22, 21 and 11 points, respectively, to outlast a scrappy Texas squad that turned in a much different performance than last year’s 51-point loss to UConn in the Sweet 16.
“When you look at the difference in mindset of our players ... they thought they could compete,” fourth-year Texas head coach Karen Aston said. “And it’s all a mindset. It’s a huge mindset, obviously, against Connecticut.”
But the experience of the Huskies’ superstar trio outlasted the mindset of the upstart Longhorns, who were led by 19 points apiece from sophomore Ariel Atkins and freshman Lashann Higgs. Texas trailed by just five after the first quarter, utilizing 10 early points from Atkins and a level of intensity that matched UConn’s.
But as chants of “Let’s go Huskies” rained down from the UConn-dominated capacity crowd of 9,008 at Webster Bank Arena in the second quarter, the three-time defending NCAA champion regained its composure. It forced the Longhorns to miss 10 straight field-goal attempts to close out the first half, and took a 46–31 lead into halftime.
Texas didn’t quit there, though. The Longhorns cut the lead to 12 in the third before Stewart and company took over, this time for good.
“It was me, Morgan and Moriah saying, all right, we have to do this, we have to take over, we have to take control,” said Stewart, who posted her third straight double double Monday after grabbing 13 boards. “We’re the most experienced, and we’re the ones that should do it.”
The three, who currently have the second-most wins by a senior class in NCAA history with 149, were named AP All-America selections earlier on Monday, as well as members of the All-Tournament team following the win. Stewart, who is just the sixth three-time All-America selection, was dubbed the regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
“We’re really excited to go to the Final Four,” Stewart said. “Coach is talking about this is our last trip with this team. Last time to be with this team and I think we’re just going to enjoy it. Especially as seniors.”
Now just two wins from an unprecedented fourth straight NCAA title and his 11th as head coach, Auriemma acknowledges his team’s success to this point, but still believes its critics will keep it motivated this weekend at the Final Four.
“I have never ever met someone who is great at what they do criticize what these kids do,” said Auriemma, whose Huskies will take on Oregon State in Sunday’s national semifinal in Indianapolis. “Because they understand how hard it is to be great. So maybe that’s what keeps us going, too.”