STORRS - Yes, it survived. But the UConn womenâs basketball team wasnât thrilled with how it advanced to its 26th consecutive NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Sunday night.
âWe have high expectations for ourselves,â point guard Crystal Dangerfield said. âWins like this, sometimes they feel like a loss. It is a W and weâre not going to dwell on it. But we will look back and see what we can get better at.â
The second-seeded Huskies earned a spot in the Albany (New York) Regional semifinals by holding off No. 10 Buffalo 84-72 at Gampel Pavilion and will face sixth-seeded UCLA on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Times Union Center. UCLA advanced to Albany with an 85-80 victory at No. 3 Maryland on Monday. Top-seeded Louisville will take on No. 4 Oregon State in the second semifinal Friday.
UConn (33-2) scored the first 15 points against Buffalo and led by 24 in the third quarter and by 18 going to the fourth. But a free throw by Brittany Morrison capped an 18-2 run and brought the Bulls (24-10) within eight with 2:36 left. But baskets by Napheesa Collier and Megan Walker kept Buffalo at a distance and the Huskies put it away by hitting five of six free throws in the final 1:01.
âI definitely donât think we came into this complacent at all,â UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. âJust the way the game played out we would go on runs when we were attacking, attacking, and then we would kind of just treat it like other games. This is the NCAA Tournament and there is definitely not going to be anyone that just gives up. So for us, understanding that and knowing that we have to be in that killer mentality throughout the entire game is important.
âAnd I absolutely think we can fix that easily. What was working in the first half was us getting inside the zone and kicking out and then kicking it back into the post. That is how we were getting easy baskets. In the second half, we kind of stopped doing that. We know we need to fix that.â
Collier recorded her fifth straight postseason double-double with 27 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocked shots over 40 minutes. Samuelson, in her second game back after missing four games with back problems, also did not come out and had 17 points and nine rebounds. Freshman Christyn Williams had a hot start and matched Samuelsonâs 17 points.
But Dangerfield, while she did reach the 1,000-point plateau, was not at her best and sat out the final 4:10 of the third quarter - when Buffalo started its run - with four fouls. Megan Walker was just 4-for-16 from the floor, with many of those misses in the lane. Freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa was the only player to see action off the bench and the Huskies were outscored by 11 in her 11 minutes of action in place of foul-plagued Williams and Dangerfield.
âItâs about preparing for anything and expecting everything,â UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. âOf course, you want to prepare for everything. But you have to expect the unexpected in the NCAA Tournament. We had a lot of games this year that we had to grind out. We played a really good team tonight and the game reflected that. No matter what the lead was, there was no âTheyâre going away and you can mail in the score, whatever you want it to be.â
âI think it was good. We learned a lot about ourselves tonight. It was a good night. Some things we learned I already knew. I donât like it, but somehow they keep popping up.â
The Huskies lost the battle of the boards 48-45, and Buffaloâs 26 offensive rebounds led to 28 second-chance points. UConn also committed 21 fouls with Walker (3) the only starter not to finish with four fouls.
It was the Huskiesâ closest second-round win since they beat Xavier here 86-84 in 1999 as Tamika Williamsâ two free throws with 7.1 seconds left capped a game-closing 8-0 run. The last time that UConn trailed in the second half of a second-round game was against Wisconsin-Green Bay in Hartford, but it went on to win 94-70.
âWhen Diana Taurasi played and we won a national championship (in 2003), we were down at halftime to TCU and she had 35 for us to win,â Auriemma said. âA lot of new fans might not remember, but winning these games is not easy. It is a struggle. It should be a struggle. It is a struggle for a lot of different reasons. All of a sudden shots that we make regularly, we donât make. Why? Because itâs the NCAA Tournament. Weâve been shooting 80-some percent from the free throw line, and now all of a sudden free throws donât go in. You play against another kid and that kid goes 4-for-100 but not in the NCAA Tournament. Or things that arenât fouls are fouls and things that are fouls arenât fouls.
âItâs not supposed to be easy. Things are supposed to be that way in the NCAA Tournament. You should be surprised when you beat somebody by 40 or 20 or 30.â
The Huskiesâ 26-year run of regional berths is the longest current streak and the second longest all-time to Tennesseeâs 27 (1982-2008). Stanford has the No. 2 current streak as the Cardinal made it 12 in a row by beating Brigham Young Monday night.
Their first regional berth came in 1991 with a one-point win over Toledo.
âI canât imagine 26 years in a row going to the regionals when I remember our very first one and I never thought we would get that one,â Auriemma said. âThat was a squeaker. Itâs incredibly rewarding for us to have that kind of consistency to know that year in and year out we show up, we play the best teams, and we find a way to win. Thatâs basically it. We find a way to win games. We find a way to advance, and now we have to do it again next weekend.â
It will be the second Sweet 16 meeting with UCLA in three seasons, with the Huskies eliminating the Bruins in Bridgeport in 2017.
The UConn-UCLA and Louisville-Oregon State winners will meet Sunday at noon for a spot in the Final Four in Tampa, Florida.
âIt seemed like the last two years we kind of cruised into the Final Four and everything was going right,â Samuelson said. âThen when things went wrong, we didnât handle it very well. For us to have a game like this and understand that we can grind it out and figure out some things we can fix is really important.â