UConn charges into women’s championship game

Twenty-five years ago, when Connecticut began its ascent to the summit of women’s college basketball
Breanna Stewart and the Connecticut Huskies will be playing Syracuse in the women's Final Four championship game Tuesday night.
Breanna Stewart and the Connecticut Huskies will be playing Syracuse in the women's Final Four championship game Tuesday night.

Twenty-five years ago, when Connecticut began its ascent to the summit of women’s college basketball, the program resembled the current Oregon State team, which this season unexpectedly captured the Dallas Region to reach its first Final Four.

If the Beavers can replicate UConn’s success, solace can be found after the Huskies dominated them 80-51 on Sunday in the NCAA Tournament semifinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

UConn’s Morgan Tuck scored a game-high 21 points. Breanna Stewart, who won her third straight national player of the year award on Saturday, finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.

In 1991, UConn reached its first Final Four, losing to Virginia in the semifinals. Since that defeat, the Huskies have reached 16 additional Final Fours, including the last nine. A victory in Tuesday’s championship game would result in UConn’s fourth straight national title and 11th overall.

Before coach Geno Auriemma arrived in Storrs, UConn was an anonymous program. Postseason tournaments were foreign territory.

When Beavers coach Scott Rueck took over at Oregon State, his alma mater, in 2010, the team occupied a space almost beyond obscurity. The previous coach, LaVonda Wagner, was fired amid allegations by players that she had verbally abused them, among other problems, and most of the team fled Corvallis.

Rueck held open tryouts to fill a roster that came to include soccer and volleyball players.

“It’s really exciting, the future,” Beavers center Ruth Hamblin said after the game. “I think we just set the bar high.”

Rueck had come from Division III George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, where he constructed his program in the Connecticut mold. He said last week that he would pore over team stats, comparing George Fox’s rankings in Division III categories to where UConn stood in Division I. In 2009, Rueck led George Fox to a 32-0 record and the national title.

With Sunday’s victory, Connecticut moved to 37-0. It was the Huskies’ 74th consecutive victory overall and it extended their streak of NCAA tournament wins to a record 23.

“That team made us pay, no matter what they did,” Rueck said. “That’s why they are who they are.”

The Beavers did not enter the game overwhelmed by the task before them. At one point during warm-ups, the team paused and coolly attempted to stack eight basketballs at once in the hoop.

But when the game tipped off, the ball went through the net less frequently, and the Huskies quickly demonstrated the chasm that separates the programs.

Tuck scored 10 of Connecticut’s first 15 points as the Huskies quickly built a 9-point lead. Despite Tuck’s hot start, UConn faced a potentially perilous situation early when Stewart picked up her second foul just 2 minutes 5 seconds into the game. But Oregon State did not regularly challenge her on defense to draw a third foul, and UConn made nine of its first 12 shots to lead after the first quarter, 26-17.

Stewart was held scoreless over the first 17 minutes and had 2 points on two field-goal attempts as UConn led at the half, 47-26.

Despite Stewart’s un­usually spotty contributions in the first half, compensation came by way of the reserves Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams. The pair combined for 10 points, four steals and a stream of blocks, offensive rebounds and charges that propelled the Huskies to close the second quarter on a 15-2 run. When Oregon State guard Jamie Weisner missed a layup at the buzzer, she tossed the ball in the air in frustration.

“They can hit from everywhere,” Weisner said. “People come off the bench, and there’s no lag. They expose every weakness and make you pay for it, force you to do things you don’t want to do.

Despite a crisp first half, UConn received troubling news when it was determined that the freshman starter Katie Lou Samuelson had broken a bone in her left foot. She returned to the bench area early in the third quarter wearing a walking boot.

Without Samuelson at forward, Stewart took over on offense, going 6-for-8 from the field in the second half, during which UConn led by as many as 34 points.

Sydney Wiese led Oregon State with 13 points, but the Beavers could never put together strong runs — only once did they make three baskets in a row. Eighteen turnovers further sabotaged their cause, and UConn never trailed.

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