With UConn struggling on offense, Crystal Dangerfield took over.
The Huskies’ junior guard scored 11 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter, including nine during a game-changing spurt to start the period and No. 2 UConn went on to beat sixth-seeded UCLA 69-61 on Friday night in the Albany Regional semifinals. Napheesa Collier had 25 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Huskies.
“I don’t think there’s anything that came easy from the very opening tip. It was a struggle,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
“We had to work really, really hard for everything we got. There was a tremendous amount of pressure on our guys to make plays. Every pass was contested, every cut was contested. Every shot was difficult to come by. There were a lot of opportunities in the second half because we only played 4½ players so to speak. We just found a way somehow when we really needed to make some shots.”
Trailing 50-49 entering the fourth quarter, the Huskies scored the first six points of the run. Dangerfield had a nifty lefty-handed layup high off the glass during the spurt.
“They were really packing it in on D, they were leaving the lane really wide open,” she said. “So it’s just a matter of spacing the floor and taking what they leave open.”
Katie Lou Samuelson, who had gone without a basket in the first three quarters, finally scored a field goal to cap the run. The senior stole the ball near halfcourt then drove in for a layup and was fouled. She hit the ensuing free throw and the Huskies (34-2) were able to hold on for the win. Samuelson finished with six points on 1-for-6 shooting.
The Huskies will face either No. 1 Louisville or fourth-seeded Oregon State in the regional final Sunday. UConn will be trying to extend its record Final Four run to 12 consecutive years. During that stretch the team has won six national championships and had a record 111-game winning streak.
Samuelson had been battling a back injury for the past few weeks that forced her to miss the American Athletic Conference Tournament. She didn’t have her first points until the third quarter when she was fouled driving to the basket. The officials reviewed the play and ruled it a flagrant foul.
The Huskies were down 46-41 at that point after UCLA had rallied from a five-point halftime deficit. Samuelson hit one of the free throws and then hit two more on the ensuing possession.
UCLA was up by one after three before UConn took over.
“The big difference was some of those big shots by Dangerfield,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “I thought we regrouped after their 6-0 run, but I saw our demeanor change when Dangerfield hit a couple of those big shots late in the shot clock.”
The loss ended a strong run for UCLA (22-13). The Bruins won 10 of their final 12 regular-season games after losing their top two scorers from last year to the WNBA in Jordin Canada and Monique Billings. The Bruins stumbled through two separate four-game losing streaks during the season, but really got going in Pac-12 play. They made it to the conference tournament’s semifinals before losing to Oregon in overtime.
“This year this team was special. Even though we didn’t start off well we showed we could fight and compete with any team,” said Kennedy Burke, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds for UCLA.
Japreece Dean scored 16 points to lead the Bruins.
UConn got down 5-0 before Collier got going. She had 10 points in the first quarter as the Huskies built a 22-15 lead after one. The lead grew to 12 before the Huskies went cold from the field and didn’t score for the final 5:15 of the half. UCLA was able to cut its deficit to 31-26 at the break, scoring the final seven points of the half.
“We went into halftime up five and Lou and Crystal didn’t score,” Auriemma said. “We kind of felt OK. I thought Lou would do something in the second half. Didn’t think her big moment would be on the defense. That’s the biggest shocker of the night and a three-point play.”
STAYING EAST: UCLA came straight to Albany after beating Maryland on Monday. It just made more sense for the Bruins to not take two cross-country flights by going back home. It helped that the school was on spring break so the players didn’t miss any classes.
TIP-INS: UCLA fell to 0-6 all-time against UConn, including also losing in the Sweet 16 in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The Bruins were trying to make an appearance in the regional final in consecutive seasons. … UConn wasn’t a one seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. … UConn continues to flourish in the NCAA Tournament when playing in the Northeast or Pennsylvania. The team is 73-1 when playing in those areas since winning its first title in 1995. The lone loss came against Duke in the regional final at Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2006. The Huskies last lost a Sweet 16 game the year before when they were beaten by Stanford. …. UCLA outrebounded UConn 41-38, but shot 31 percent from the field.
Follow Doug Feinberg on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/WomensNCAATournament and https://twitter.com/AP—Top25