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No Upset In Bridgeport: UConn Reaches Elite Eight By Pounding Mississippi State By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 26, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

BRIDGEPORT – The members of the UConn women’s basketball knew exactly what was going on Friday night. There was a group chat circulating among the players as No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and South Carolina were being upset in the NCAA regional semifinals.

The top-ranked Huskies do not need any extra motivation at this time of the season. But in witnessing the elimination of two teams that were supposed to challenge them for the national championship, they were intent on making sure the trend did not continue against fifth-seeded Mississippi State.

Breanna Stewart had 22 points (8-for-10 FG), 14 rebounds, three assists and five steals Saturday to lead UConn to an impressive 98-38 win in the Bridgeport regional semifinals before a sellout crowd of 8,898 at Webster Bank Arena. It was the largest margin of victory ever in the Sweet 16.

``I think that we just didn’t want to send a message to Mississippi State we wanted to show the whole country this is why we’re the overall No. 1 and this is why people are saying we’re as good as we are,’’ UConn senior Morgan Tuck said. ``And I think we were able to do that.’’

The Huskies, who have won 72 straight games, have advanced to the Elite Eight for the 11th straight season and the 22nd overall. They will meet second-seeded Texas in the regional final Monday (7 p.m.; ESPN).

Behind 18 points and 10 rebounds from Imani Boyette, the Longhorns defeated third-seeded UCLA 72-64 Saturday. UConn routed Texas 105-54 in the regional semifinals last season.

The Huskies are seeking to reach the Final Four for an NCAA record ninth consecutive season. The Longhorns (31-4) are looking to return for the first time since losing to UConn in Atlanta in 2003.

``It’s one of those days that you just feel it’s special,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``This isn’t the way that basketball normally goes. But every once in a while you catch that kind of wave, and the next thing you know it just crashes down on the other team and it just keeps going and going and going.’’

Katie Lou Samuelson finished with 21 points, three rebounds and three assists for the Huskies. She joined Stewart and Maya Moore as the only UConn freshmen to score at least 20 points twice in an NCAA tournament game.

Tuck added 19 points (7-for-10 FG), six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Moriah Jefferson, who is now ranked second in team history in assists (638) and steals (350), produced seven points, four assists and four steals.

UConn shot 62.7 percent from the field, while holding Mississippi State to 28.6 percent (0-for-14 3-pointers).

``(Saturday) it felt like I was playing a WNBA team,’’ Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. ``I don’t know what team in the league they can’t compete with. They’ve got all the pieces. I think we’re pretty good and we looked awful. I’m disappointed in so many ways. I just thought we’d play better. But we didn’t and they had everything to do with it.’’

This is the 10th straight season that UConn has been awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and the 19th time overall. The Huskies have failed to reach the Elite Eight once – losing to Iowa State in the regional semifinals in 1999.

Overall, UConn is 88-9 all-time as a No. 1 seed, with nine national championships and 14 Final Four appearances. It has won 70 of its last 75 NCAA tournament games as a No. 1 seed.

``We’re pretty hard on our guys,’’ Auriemma said. ``We’re pretty hard on our kids in the middle of January in the middle of nowhere, and we’re playing a game that everybody thinks is meaningless. We're pretty hard on them. And we demand certain things. And then when you get to this time of the year, hopefully, they don’t know any other way of playing.

``So when we started out playing the way we did (Saturday) I was taken aback myself. That’s one of the top defensive teams in the country, right? I knew they would have a hard time guarding Stewie and Tuck. I knew that because they're just not used to seeing players like that. But … I even told them during the timeout, and I never do this, I told them during one timeout, I said,` Man, you guys are really good.’ I was just caught up in it all. I said, `You guys are really good.’ Now, timeouts on Monday might be completely different.’’

The Huskies completely wiped out any notion of an upset in the opening minutes by scoring the first 13 points of the game. They made five of their first eight shots, while Mississippi State missed its first seven.

UConn led 26-4 at the end of the first quarter, 40-8 with 7:50 left in the first half and 61-12 at halftime. The Huskies had runs of 13-0, 11-0 and 10-0 before scoring the final 13 points of the half.

``We like to get out in transition, and it seemed like every time they came down the court when we were on defense they weren't getting what they wanted,’’ Stewart said. ``They were turning the ball over or getting a block or getting a rebound. And we were just outhustling them. We were running past them to get up the court in transition, and you could tell that they were tired.’’

The Bulldogs (28-8) suffered through scoreless droughts of 4:32, 3:40, 2:10 and 5:32. They missed 14 of their first 16 shots and shot 20.7 percent from the field and committed 12 turnovers in the half.

``When you’re turning the ball over against that group it’s a track meet,’’ Schaefer said. ``It becomes very difficult to get back. They’re like piranhas on a roast. When they go in transition you can’t get the bone out of the water fast enough. So it’s a difficult deal to deal with.’’

Jefferson and Stewart left the game for good with 3:52 left in the third quarter. Tuck did not play in the fourth quarter. Samuelson sat out the final 8:45.

Teaira McCowan led Mississippi State with 10 points and four rebounds. Leading scorer Victoria Vivians (17.4) was limited to a season-low six on 3-for-15 shooting from the field in 27 minutes.

The Bulldogs dropped to 0-11 all-time when facing the nation’s top-ranked team.

``We’ve got some seniors that have played a lot of games, and they’ve played in a lot of big games,’’ Auriemma said. ``And when they show up and play the way they played (Saturday), it’s hard for anybody to play against us. I’m probably as surprised as anybody about the final score. But when it’s like that, when we’re playing the way we played, and defensively, it just … Our offense was one thing, but the way we played defense was pretty magnificent. I’m really proud of them.’’

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