LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – As poorly as his team shot in the first half, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair was feeling pretty good about the Aggies’ chances against UConn with 15 minutes to play.
The feeling didn’t last long.
Connecticut broke open the game in the middle of the second half and went on to a 69-54 victory Monday night. The defending champion Huskies advanced to the NCAA women’s Final Four for the seventh straight year.
“We competed, and I thought we really had a chance when we cut it to three,” Blair said. “A great team just looks you in the face and says, ‘Is that all you got?’ They came down and got two easy baskets before I could call timeout.”
The Aggies (27-9) finished the season with wins in 20 of 25 games and made it to the regional final for the third time since 2008.
“The season as a whole, I think we came a lot farther than people expected us to,” Courtney Walker said. “We fell out of the Top 25 and came back. To make this run like we did shows a lot of resiliency on this team.”
UConn’s Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis continued her splendid run through the NCAA tournament with 17 points.
“It’s not easy to beat anybody at this time of the year because everybody is playing their best basketball,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We beat a pretty good team today, and I’m proud of my team. I thought we were really, really good when we needed to be really, really good.”
The defending national champion Huskies (38-0) won their 44th straight game. Their semifinal opponent Sunday in Nashville will be either Stanford or North Carolina.
Stefanie Dolson, who made her 150th career start to tie the NCAA record, had 14 points and 10 rebounds and blocked a career-high eight shots. Bria Hartley had 14 points, Breanna Stewart added 13 and Moriah Jefferson 11.
Walker led Texas A&M with 14 points. Courtney Williams had 13 and Jordan Jones 12.
Mosqueda-Lewis, an All-American last year who missed a total of 12 games this season because of injury or illness, turned in another great performance and was named the regional’s most outstanding player.
She had a triple-double against Saint Joseph’s in the second round and 19 points and 13 rebounds against BYU on Saturday. Against the Aggies in the regional final she provided the spark after the Huskies found themselves in an early hole.
The Aggies had shot 60 percent in their 84-65 win over DePaul on Saturday, their best mark ever in an NCAA tournament game. They hit 28.9 percent the first half while falling behind 34-23 against UConn and finished at 35.3 percent for the game.
The Aggies had won their first three games in the tournament by 15 points or more, but they ran into a UConn club that was just too powerful, whether in transition or in the paint.
The Aggies made their first six shots of the second half to cut into UConn’s 11-point halftime lead. Jones hit a pair of 3s, and after she drove to the hoop on Jefferson, A&M was within 40-37.
The Huskies cranked up their transition game, went on a 10-0 spurt and outscored the Aggies 27-12 to build their lead to 18 points in the final 3 minutes. No team has played UConn closer than 11 points this season.
The Aggies broke out to an 11-4 lead — matching the biggest deficit UConn has faced this season — before Mosqueda-Lewis made her presence known.
Mosqueda-Lewis fed Dolson for an easy basket to start a 26-6 UConn run. Hartley scored twice off Jefferson’s long passes, Mosqueda-Lewis hit a couple 3s and showed what she could do inside when she took an inbound pass and drove the baseline for a left-handed layup.
Jefferson slipped a pass to Dolson for a reverse layup and then drove the hoop and hit a 3 of her own to put the Huskies up 30-17.
Walker ended a five-minute scoring drought with three straight jumpers, but nothing symbolized the night more than Kiah Stokes’ block of Achiri Ade’s shot just ahead of the halftime buzzer.
“We got Stewart into two quick fouls but we weren’t able to extend the lead,” Blair said. “That is what killed us. We were running an offense 25 feet from the basket. That’s not us. We’ve got to attack more off the bounce, and we started doing that the second half. But their defense is so good because they understand the game.”
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