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Connecticut women turn back UCLA, 86-71

Connecticut women turn back UCLA, 86-71
Connecticut forward Napheesa Collier pulls down a defensive rebound against UCLA guard Jordin Canada during the first half Saturday. (Jessica Hill / Associated Press) (Jessica Hill / AP)

The UCLA women's basketball team played hard until the final buzzer, but couldn't muster enough steam to power through a Connecticut-built brick wall.

If it wasn't Connecticut forward Napheesa Collier making shots through the lane, it was forward Gabby Williams knocking down jumpers. If it wasn't forward Katie Lou Samuelson stepping back to hit three-point baskets, it was guard Saniya Chong.

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"We like to say that to play with us, it's a marathon, it's not a sprint," Williams said.

If only the Bruins knew.

Fourth-seeded UCLA led top-seeded UConn (35-0) for more than 5 ½ minutes before the Bruins couldn't keep pace any longer and became the 110th consecutive team to fall to the Huskies, 86-71, in front of a sold-out crowd in a Bridgeport Regional semifinal at Webster Bank Arena on Saturday.

After rolling through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, UCLA's (25-9) season ends after making consecutive trips to a regional semifinal for the first time in program history.

"I don't want it to end," UCLA Coach Cori Close said after the game as her voice cracked and tears welled in her eyes. "I thought they fought their guts out."

With the victory UConn Coach Geno Auriemma ties late Hall of Fame coach Pat Summit for most career NCAA tournament wins by a coach with 112 and the Huskies will continue their quest for a fifth-consecutive NCAA title Monday when they play 10-seeded Oregon in a regional final. The Ducks upset third-seeded Maryland in the other regional semifinal.

"We played a really, really good team," Auriemma said. "They are hard to play against and today was a struggle for us."

Early in the game it seemed possible that UCLA could become the first team to defeat UConn since 2014 and advance to a regional final for the first time since 1999.

Playing at a frenetic pace, the Bruins opened on a 9-2 run after guard Jordin Canada, guard Kari Korver, forward Monique Billings and guard Kennedy Burke made consecutive shots and UConn missed seven of its first eight attempts.

But the Huskies kept shooting and went on a 7-0 run, sparked by a three-point basket by Kia Nurse, who finished with nine points.

Burke hit a jumper and the Bruins regained the lead before UConn took over on the boards and scored six second-chance points. By the end of the first quarter a seven-point lead evaporated and the Bruins trailed, 22-13.

"We got a lot of good shots up in those first few minutes, they just weren't falling," said Williams, who scored 17 points for the Huskies. "Once they started to fall, once we started to execute better on defense, the game kind of fell into place."

UConn guard Crystal Dangerfield came off the bench in the second quarter, scored a bucket and picked up the foul as the overwhelmingly UConn crowd rose to its feet. She failed to convert the three-point play, but apparently didn't need to. The basket alone appeared to deliver the knockout punch and put the Huskies in command, 33-18.

"For a second, we kind of looked defeated," said Canada, who was held to four first-half points. "That's when they capitalized on their opportunities to score in transition and get offensive rebounds."

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Said Close: "We just had that segment in the first half for about eight minutes where we sort of lost our focus and discipline."

The Huskies went into halftime leading, 48-31. They scored 15 points off of turnovers and second-chance baskets, while the Bruins were held to 38.2% (13-for-34) shooting and were outrebounded, 24-11.

"We had a 10-minute stretch where we didn't get any rebounds," said Korver, who made five of 11 shots — all from behind the three-point line — in her final game as a Bruin. "They had a bunch of transition threes where we weren't getting matched up very well."

UCLA outscored the Huskies, 21-17, in the third quarter behind 10 of Canada's 20 points, but the game was out of reach.

Canada finished with a double-double for a third consecutive game, also dishing 11 assists. "I had a good game but that doesn't even matter because we lost," Canada said.

Billings also notched a double-double, scoring 17 points and grabbing 13 second-half rebounds to finish with 17.

UConn shot 55.6% and four Huskies scored in double digits, led by Collier's 27 points and 14 rebounds. Chong scored 16 points and Samuelson, from Santa Ana Mater Dei High, scored 15.

"They've set the bar of excellence," Close said. "And they've kept it there for a really long time."

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Facebook and Twitter @LindseyThiry

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