ALBANY, N.Y. - From the moment she set foot on campus but months before she’d play her first game, Crystal Dangerfield was being thought of as the UConn women’s basketball team’s next great point guard.
She had her moments - think Baylor in her second outing - in an up-and-down freshman season that ended with her watching the final shot of the season in Dallas from the bench. She returned with a new confidence as a sophomore and through the first half of the regular season was as good as anyone in the country before shin splints in her left leg began limiting her practice time and in some cases her effectiveness.
But on one of those special nights Monday at the Times Union Center, the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native put forth a first half that was as good as any of the Huskies’ greats have played. By the time she fed Azura Stevens for a layup to close out the second-quarter scoring, UConn’s spot in the NCAA Final Four was secured.
Dangerfield scored 19 of her 21 points in a decisive first half as the top-seeded Huskies clobbered No. 2 seed and defending national champion South Carolina 94-65 in the NCAA Albany Regional final.
“I walked into the locker room at halftime and said, ‘Crystal is the best point guard that I’ve ever played with in my life,’ ” Stevens said. “The first half she had, the whole game she had, she’s just amazing to play with. She has a complete game. She was able to knock in open shots and still find ways to get her teammates the ball in good positions.”
The win gives UConn (36-0) its record 11th consecutive Final Four appearance (no one else has more than five straight) and 19th overall, breaking a tie with Tennessee for the most berths.
UConn will face Spokane (Washington) Regional champion Notre Dame Friday at approximately 9 p.m. at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. It will be the fifth time that the Huskies and Irish will play in the national semifinals. They have also played twice for the national championships. Louisville and Mississippi State will play in the first game Friday.
Dangerfield wasn’t just outstanding, though, she was spectacular. Conceded the perimeter shot by the Gamecocks’ defense, she was 5-for-5 from behind the arc in the opening 20 minutes and had four assists to no turnovers as UConn built a 21-point lead at the break.
Have former national Player of the Year winners Jennifer Rizzotti, Sue Bird, or Diana Taurasi, or former Nancy Lieberman Award winners Renee Montgomery or Moriah Jefferson done it better for a half?
“Those guys had a lot of great halves,” said UConn assistant coach and former All-American guard Shea Ralph, who played with Bird and Taurasi and coached Montgomery and Jefferson. “The difference with Crystal is how she’s grown, how quickly she’s gotten better, how quickly she’s made an impact. I don’t know if I’ve seen that in my time here. But you’re asking me to compare her to a lot of great point guards. Is she up there? She’s up there. Can she get a lot better? She’s got to be better defensively. She’s got to make open shots consistently like she did tonight. In terms of what she’s capable, she could be one of the greats.”
Among the all-time great point guards watching was South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, whose performances in college at Virginia, the WNBA, and the Olympics landed her in the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield. Staley was also Dangerfield’s coach with the United States U-19 national team that won the gold medal at the 2015 FIBA U-19 world championships.
“It was special,” Dangerfield said. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Staley. Outside of my own coaches, she was one of my favorites and she does a great job with her team. I wanted to stay aggressive. We were moving the ball well and my teammates were finding me. They were leaving me open so I needed to knock them in.”
Dangerfield entered the game shooting 44.7 percent from behind the arc on the season, but was just 1-for-10 from the floor and missed four of five treys in UConn’s rout of South Carolina on Feb. 1.
“She made wide-open shots. They were practice shots, with her feet set and no one really around her,” Staley said. “Certainly we didn’t do a good job of staying close to home to her. We kind of dug ourselves in the hole by helping off too much. It was that kind of game in which we could not control it.”