NASHVILLE — The top-seeded Connecticut women’s basketball team moved a step closer to completing a fifth undefeated season and winning a record ninth championship by rallying to beat No. 2 seed Stanford, 75-56, Sunday night in the NCAA tournament’s national semifinals in front of 17,548 at Bridgestone Arena.
Trailing by six shortly before the break, the Huskies went on a 25-5 run over the halves that sent them into a second straight title game and fourth since 2008-09. That season, Connecticut won the first of consecutive national championships while going undefeated.
This time the Huskies (39-0) will try to complete that feat against a familiar opponent: Notre Dame, which advanced to Tuesday night’s final by overwhelming Maryland, 87-61.
The top-seeded Fighting Irish also are undefeated and seeking their first national title since 2001 and second in program history.
“To have the spotlight Tuesday on two teams that one of them is going to lose for the first time this year, it’s pretty remarkable when you think about how hard that is to do for one team, much less two,” Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma said. Notre Dame is “far and away the best team I’ve seen this year. No one else is even close of any team that we’ve played or that I’ve seen play on film.”
Sophomore forward Breanna Stewart led the Huskies with 18 points, including 9 for 11 on free throws, and junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis chipped in 15 points and five rebounds.
Senior guard Bria Hartley added 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Junior guard Amber Orrange led the Cardinal with 15 points and a team-high five assists, and senior forward Chiney Ogwumike had 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, although the first-team all-American missed 7 of 12 shots.
The closest Stanford (33-4) got late in the game was 61-50 with 5 minutes 24 seconds to play on a three-pointer by junior forward Bonnie Samuelson.
Auriemma elected not to call timeout, preferring instead to allow his players to deal with that small bit of adversity themselves.
They responded by reeling off 10 of the next 14 points, and Connecticut could begin celebrating when sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson stole the ball and swooped in for an uncontested layup that expanded the margin to 75-54 with 37 seconds to play.
“I think that at times we were getting a little too jumpy,” Stewart said. “We were getting a little too excited. We had to settle down and get into the right rhythm of the game. Once we did that, it seemed like we got on a run to end the first half, and shots started falling.”
Connecticut shot 61 percent in the second half and got to the foul line 14 more times than the Cardinal, which missed 19 of 25 three-pointers and committed 13 turnovers that led to 20 points.
The Huskies held a 28-14 advantage in points in the paint and made 3 of 6 from beyond the arc following intermission.
The first half featured mostly off-target shooting from Connecticut, which missed 15 of its first 20 shots. That allowed the Cardinal to construct a 16-10 lead on freshman guard Lili Thompson’s three-pointer with 12:32 to go until intermission. Soon after senior forward Mikaela Ruef made a three-pointer, and Stanford led 22-16.
The Huskies finally began to emerge the latter stages of the first half. They put together a 12-0 flurry for their first lead since less than four minutes into the game. A jumper by senior center Stefanie Dolson tied it, and Stewart put Connecticut in front roughly one minute later with a jump shot from the foul line with defenders coming at her.
“We picked up the pressure a little bit on our defense,” Hartley said. “I think Moriah did a good job. She had a few steals out there. That steal that Stewie got was awesome, and it really changed the momentum of the game. I think that’s what our defense does.”
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