BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Getting to the Final Four never gets old for Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut women's team.
The Huskies reached the national semifinals for a record sixth straight season with an 83-53 win over Kentucky on Monday night in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.
Up next will be either Notre Dame, a Big East rival the Huskies have lost to three times this season, or Duke, a squad UConn routed by 30 points in January.
Auriemma didn't really seem to care who the Huskies play Sunday.
"Anytime you're fortunate to play in the Final Four, you're going to have to beat two great teams," he said. "You don't stumble your way into the Final Four, that's for sure. Whoever we play Sunday, that's our main focus right now. After Sunday, we'll play on Tuesday or we're going home. Right now we have a great chance to win a national championship."
The road to an eighth title got a bit easier for the Huskies (33-4) when defending national champion and top overall seed Baylor lost to Louisville on Sunday night. Still, they could face the Irish, who have eliminated them in the past two Final Fours and won seven of the past eight meetings.
"We're ready for whoever is there," junior center Stefanie Dolson said.
Breanna Stewart scored 21 points and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 17 to lead the Huskies, who have reached the national semifinals 14 times.
"Each year is different ... special in its own way," senior Kelly Faris said. "This is our last go-around. We want to go out with a bang. I'm fortunate to be part of this program where we make it every year. We never are satisfied until we get to that final game."
UConn (2000-04) broke the record of appearing in five straight Final Fours that it shared with Stanford ('08-12) and LSU ('04-08).
It was the second straight season UConn beat Kentucky in the regional finals after the Huskies topped the Wildcats by 15 last year 105 miles to the north of Bridgeport in Kingston, R.I.
This game wasn't as close. Kentucky stayed in it for the first 10 minutes with their "40-minutes-of-dread" defense before UConn turned up its own defensive intensity.
The Huskies trailed 23-22 with just 9 minutes left in the first half. That's when Stewart, who was honored as the outstanding player of the Bridgeport Regional, and UConn's "no-name" defense took over, allowing three points the rest of the half.
Mosqueda-Lewis said Auriemma tells his players to be like sharks on defense — and that's what the Huskies have become.
"When there's blood in the water, you smell it and you go after it," she said. "We're just going to keep going after it. It's like a domino effect. Once we get one steal, we'll get another and another."
Kentucky missed 13 of its final 14 shots in the opening half, with the only make coming when Jelleah Sidney banked in a 3-pointer from the wing.
While UConn was playing lockdown defense, Stewart was dominating on the offensive end. The 6-foot-4 star, the national high school player of the year last season, scored nine points and had a vicious two-handed block during that closing run.
After Sidney's 3-pointer, Stewart calmly converted a three-point play on the other end. UConn led 48-26 at the break.
Kentucky couldn't get within 20 in the second half.
It's been an unusual season for UConn, which for the first time in 19 years didn't win either the Big East regular season or tournament title. Now the Huskies are two wins away from redemption.
Auriemma got a gritty effort out of Dolson, who has a stress fracture in her right ankle and an injured left foot as well. She wore a brace on her left leg and a compression sock on her right one. While she scored only two points, she had 11 rebounds and four assists.
"She might have been the leading rebounder in the whole tournament," Auriemma said. "She's grown up and changed her mindset. What I most admired about her this tournament was every time she was on the bench she kept looking at me ... 'Why am I out?' For somebody who is hurting that much who didn't practice yesterday and walked through shootaround, that epitomizes the spirit we have right now on this team."
The loss closed a record year for the Wildcats (30-6), who finished with the most victories in school history. Not bad for a program rich in basketball tradition on the men's side. Still, Mitchell was left searching for the school's first trip to the Final Four.
The Wildcats have made the NCAA tournament each of the past four seasons and reached the regional finals in three of those years, falling short each time.
"I don't think we're going to get discouraged," Mitchell said. "I know our players wanted us to perform better than we did. If anyone started to think it's not going to happen they're not inside our program. We'll get there."
Senior A'dia Mathies, the two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year, had a quiet game with only 14 points — 11 of them coming in the second half. She finished as the winningest player in Kentucky history.
"It looks a lot different when she's walking out the door than when she was walking in the door," Mitchell said. "I hate how we performed the way we did and sent her out this way. I hope the contribution she made and impact she made doesn't get lost in a real tough 40 minutes for us."
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