UConn slows its roll into Final Four

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Connecticut is different than other teams. The Huskies are better. In the first three games of this NCAA tournament, they were 143 points better. So when something unthinkable, like a one-point deficit, confronts this squad, this is considered a major obstacle.

"What normal teams face every year, a lot, if it happens once at Connecticut it's adversity," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

In Monday night's NCAA regional final against a fun-loving, entertaining Dayton squad, UConn showed the grit it needs to deal with its unique form or hardship, shutting down the Flyers in the second half for a 91-70 victory.

The win sends UConn to Tampa Bay for its eighth straight Final Four and keeps the team in the driver's seat for a third straight national championship. But it also taught the 36-1 Huskies, who haven't lost since the second game of the year and hadn't trailed at half since 2013, a lesson about themselves: They can handle a little pressure.

"The demeanor of our team wasn't really that different when we've been in the locker room up 21," Auriemma said. "There was a look on their faces that was really more of a, 'We can't wait to go out there and take care of this.' There was no, 'Omigod what happened?'"

The Huskies could have been forgiven for feeling at least a bit of OMG. Dayton played a sensational first half, running and firing shots from all over the court, hitting seven of 10 3-pointers and making UConn defenders look like castoffs from an NBA All-Star game.

The offensive outburst in the 44-43 first half left the 7,686 fans in the Times Union Center thoroughly enjoying the show. They weren't alone. "I had to calm myself down," said Dayton's coach, Jim Jabir, whose seventh-seeded Flyers upset No. 2 seed Kentucky and third-seeded Louisville to set up their date with UConn.

Dayton's Ally Malott would hit a trey, and UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who wound up with a game-high 27 points and the NCAA Division I career record for 3-pointers with 393, would match her. The Flyers' Kelley Austria would snake through the lane for a bucket, and seconds later, UConn's Breanna Stewart or Morgan Tuck would sneak along the baseline for two.

Back and forth it went for a breathtaking 20 minutes. "We weren't afraid of them," said Flyer senior guard Andrea Hoover, who along with Malott was named to the all-regional team.

And the Flyers, who'd talked before the game about not worrying about the name on the UConn jersey, were doing just that. At Dayton's pace, "The game is played so fast, you don't notice who you're playing," Hoover said.

But in the second half, UConn made them notice. The Huskies quit racing. They used their height. They slowly suffocated the Flyers. They adjusted. "It was important to make sure we had a change of pace," point guard Moriah Jefferson said. "There were times where we felt like it was going back and forth too much, and we needed to take a break and get a good easy shot, and try to knock that in."

Jefferson, one of the fastest players in the college game, was at home with the pace of the first half, but in the second, she often walked the ball up the court, directing it inside to the 6-foot-4 Stewart and the 6-2 Tuck, who each finished with 23 points. "Going 100 miles an hour wasn't what we needed tonight," Jefferson said. "Tuck and Stewie did a good job of posting up, so we found them and they put in the layups for us."

The 5-7 junior admitted she might not have been comfortable slowing things down early in her UConn career, but she, too, has adjusted, maturing into one of UConn's top offensive threats in the second half of the season. Before Christmas, Jefferson shot 43 percent from the field; she has hit 65 percent of her shots since. She attributes part of the evolution to a talk with UConn coaches around the Christmas break, where they broke down video of Spurs guard Tony Parker, and told her to emulate his knack for knowing when to go to the basket and when to dish. Monday, she handed out six assists, including the pass that set up Mosqueda-Lewis' record-setting trey.

While their offense slowed Dayton, the Huskies' D stopped the Flyers cold. Neither Malott (14 points) nor Austria (11) scored in the second half.

UConn began switching every ball screen Dayton set, and defenders such as Tuck aggressively face-guarded Dayton's shooters. "It was harder to get open," Malott said.

Meanwhile, Auriemma said, the Huskies coaching staff made a simple request. "We would appreciate it if just one of you put your hands up," he said. "Just one."

More than a few Huskies did, and the Flyers as a team shot just 37 percent in the second half after nailing 51 percent from the field in the first.

The Flyers fell to earth, but not before revealing UConn is indeed a collection of college students. "We need to be treated like mortals," Auriemma said, "and it's OK."

It was OK with his players, too. Jefferson liked being tested, if only for 20 minutes. This wasn't pressure. "It was fun."