The final seconds were ticking off the clock, Connecticut was on the cusp of yet another trip to the Final Four, and the prime-time players could finally exhale.
The starters who fueled an improbable season of perfection shared the joy. All five players took part in the same accomplishment a year ago, but this was different. This was theirs.
“It felt good that we kind of did something for ourselves,” Gabby Williams said after UConn’s 90-52 win over Oregon on Monday night.
They’ve been doing it for themselves for the past four months. The team that was considered vulnerable and beatable after last season’s leaders — Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck — went to the WNBA found its identity early, learned how to win and has never looked back.
As they head to Dallas for the program’s 10th consecutive Final Four appearance, the Huskies (36-0) carry an 111-game winning streak. They are bidding for their fifth consecutive national title and 12th overall.
Did anyone see this coming when this group gathered in the fall?
“Maybe the only people that expected it to happen was them,” Coach Geno Auriemma said.
They delivered Auriemma’s 113th tournament victory Monday. He moved ahead of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt for most tournament wins. It was his 991st overall win, moving him into sole possession of third place on the all-time list. He’ll be after No. 992 on Friday against Mississippi State.
But the Cinderella Ducks suffocated under the pressure from UConn’s defense. Kia Nurse and Saniya Chong guarded the perimeter, Will-iams was active down low and Oregon was out of sync from the start.
“I’ve always felt what sets them apart from everybody else is the defense,” Oregon Coach Kelly Graves said. “They give you nothing, and we’ve been a really good offensive team. ... We were playing on our heels all night long.”
The Huskies scored 32 points off turnovers and put the game away in the first 10 minutes, opening a 28-13 lead.
Napheesa Collier, coming off a 27-point performance against UCLA, scored 28 points on 12-for-20 shooting. She also had 12 rebounds and four blocks. Williams scored 25 points, while Nurse and Chong had 11 each. Chong was three for five on three-point shots.