The chalkboard in the UConn locker room after the Huskies' victory over Kentucky had two words written across it: Final Four.
Even though that destination is expected every year for Geno Auriemma's teams, this season felt different.
Before it started, Auriemma figured his team wouldn't be good enough to make it to the Final Four. But a funny thing happened along the way: His starless team jelled and now UConn is back in the national semifinals for a fifth straight season.
"We like to go to the Final Four every year," Auriemma said. "I think we're also realistic, some years it's going to be easier than others. Expectations are always there, regardless of the probability. This year was less than other years. Makes it more worthwhile. Last year we went as a team led by Maya Moore. This year there isn't any of that. The University of Connecticut is going to the Final Four and I think that's pretty cool once in a while."
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points and top-seed Connecticut beat Kentucky 80-65 Tuesday night in the Kingston regional final.
"We're not a team with superstars, we didn't have any preseason All-Americans, so no one really expected us to be as dominant as we have been this year," said UConn guard Bria Hartley.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18 for UConn (33-4), which will play Notre Dame on Sunday in Denver.
Hayes, who was selected most outstanding player of the regional, has been to a Final Four in all four of her seasons. Getting there this time was special to the senior.
"It's even sweeter because this is a team effort, it wasn't one or two people getting us there," she said. "We all had our part in it. Everyone had their way of helping us get there. Glad to be back for the fourth time."
The Huskies matched their own school mark of five straight trips to the national semifinals set from 2000-04. LSU and Stanford also have accomplished the feat.
Unlike their previous four trips to the regional finals, which were quick blowouts, the Huskies had to work to pull away from the Wildcats.
UConn led 48-47 early in the second half before turning up its defense and taking command with a 21-5 spurt. Hayes, the lone senior on the team, was the catalyst, scoring seven points during the run. She got it started with a lay-in. Then the Huskies started a parade to the free throw line, with whistle after whistle. The Huskies converted 12 free throws during the game-changing run.
While the Huskies were scoring points, their vaunted defense was stymieing the Wildcats, who torched UConn for 39 points before the break, the most the Huskies have allowed in the first half this season.
The Wildcats found it much tougher to score in the second half. During UConn's burst, Kentucky could only get two field goals over a span of 9 minutes.
Mosqueda-Lewis' 3-pointer with 7:26 left capped UConn's burst and made it 69-52.
Kentucky (28-7) could get no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
Samarie Walker scored 14 to lead the Wildcats.
It's been a strange season for UConn. Despite running through the early part of the schedule, Auriemma knew it was just a matter of time before the team's shortcomings were exposed. Losses to Baylor and Notre Dame on the road were understandable, but it wasn't until the end of February that UConn really came to a crossroads.
The Huskies lost to St. John's at home on senior night, snapping a 99-game home winning streak. Nine days later the Huskies fell to Notre Dame. Those two defeats got the Huskies refocused and they've been unstoppable since. The Huskies cruised to the Big East tournament championship and rolled through their first three NCAA tournament games.
Now the Huskies are back in the Final Four for the 13th time in the last 18 years.
The Kentucky women were trying to join the school's men's team in the Final Four. It would have been the eighth time that a school had both programs in the national semifinals. Connecticut has done it three times, including last season. The Huskies are still the only school to win both the men's and women's championship in the same season, in 2004.
It's the second time in three seasons that the Wildcats had reached the regional finals. They lost to Oklahoma two seasons ago.
"It's hard to get to where we got to tonight and they've been here so many times, it's difficult," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We need to stay at it and keep showing up and one day we'll punch through."
Kentucky is headed in the right direction. The Wildcats won their first regular-season SEC championship since 1982 and tied the school record for victories in a season.
"We had an incredible season," Walker said. "It's disappointing but we have a really good group coming back and we will be really good again."
Mitchell will have most of his team back next season. The Wildcats' coach put the Denver Final Four logo in front of the locker room before the year started as motivation for his squad. Now they can look toward to next season and making it to New Orleans.
"We'll keep knocking on the door and hopefully one day we'll get to the Final Four," Mitchell said. "Four or five years ago when these kids thought of coming to Kentucky, they weren't thinking about winning an SEC championship. I'm really proud of them, and what they've accomplished."
UConn raced out to a 9-0 lead and looked poised for another blowout. A quick timeout by Mitchell settled his team down and the Wildcats rallied to close within 23-21 on two free throws by Bria Goss. A jumper by Stefanie Dolson and 3-pointer by Hayes gave the Huskies a 28-21 advantage with 8:19 left.
Kentucky was unfazed. The Wildcats, who were constantly subbing fresh players, then went on a 12-2 run over the next three minutes as fouls started piling up on the Huskies. A layup by Goss and two free throws by Keyla Snowden gave the Wildcats a 33-30 advantage with 5:01 left.
The teams exchanged baskets and free throws the rest of the half. The two schools combined to take 27 foul shots in the first half with the Wildcats making all 14 of their attempts.
A'dia Mathies' two free throws with 2.1 seconds left tied the game at 39 before Kelly Faris caught the ensuing inbounds pass at half court and beat the halftime buzzer for a lay-in to make it 41-39 at the break.