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UConn, South Carolina to meet in Albany Regional final

UConn, South Carolina to meet in Albany Regional final

Monday's regional final will pit the sport's reigning national champion vs. its top dynasty
UConn, South Carolina to meet in Albany Regional final
UConn's Napheesa Collier drives on Duke's Erin Mathias Saturday in the Albany Regional semifinal at Times Union Center.
Photographer: Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

ALBANY — Sixty-two seconds after opening tip, Duke called for timeout.

Perhaps the only surprise was that it took that long for the UConn women’s basketball team to force one.

While undefeated UConn didn’t play its best game Saturday, it still relatively breezed through its Sweet 16 matchup Saturday with Duke. The Huskies scored the game’s first seven points on their way to a 72-59 victory at Times Union Center.

“Today wasn’t one of those games where you just run up and down, and shoot 25 3s and everything goes great,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “You have to grind it out against a good team. That’s part of what this tournament is all about.”

Coupled with South Carolina’s 79-63 win against Buffalo in the first half of Saturday’s NCAA tournament regional semifinals, UConn’s victory set up an Elite Eight matchup Monday back at Times Union Center between the sport’s signature program and the reigning national champion.

“We know they’re going to put up a fight,” UConn senior Gabby Williams said, “and it’s going to be a battle.”

Against Duke, UConn maintained a double-digit lead for the final 28:18, and led by at least 13 points throughout the second half. Duke (No. 5, 24-9) never went ahead; UConn (No. 1, 35-0) led by as many as 23 points.

Leading the Huskies was junior Napheesa Collier with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while both junior Katie Lou Samuelson and Williams scored 15. For Duke, sophomore Leaonna Odom paired 22 points with eight rebounds.

“We’re really excited to be back [in the Elite Eight] and I think we’re really excited for another game, even though this season has gone by so fast,” Samuelson said. “We’re just excited to keep going.”

In 2017, South Carolina won the national championship without having to go through UConn. South Carolina won last year’s championship game 67-55 against Mississippi State, two days after Mississippi State ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak in the Final Four with a buzzer-beating shot in overtime.

UConn and South Carolina did play earlier this season, with UConn winning 83-58. At halftime of that game, the Huskies led 53-24.

“We know right off the bat it’s going to be a completely different game than when we played them earlier in the season,” Samuelson said. “I think they’re going to . . . bring it at us because of how we played at their place.”

An announced crowd of 10,658 watched Saturday’s action. Despite her game’s generally pro-Buffalo crowd, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said Albany created an atmosphere befitting of the Sweet 16.

“I thought the crowd was terrific. Obviously, it didn’t favor us, but just the atmosphere created here, I thought everybody that organized getting people in the stands did a great job filling it and it felt like a postseason place. . . . So a lot of energy was in the gym,” Staley said. “I take my hat off to the organizers. I thank the MAAC for doing a great job at getting people in the stands.”

‘What fight’

There was disappointment, but no regrets for Buffalo (No. 11, 29-6) after its Cinderella run closed with its loss to South Carolina (No. 2, 29-6).

“I’m a competitor, yes, but . . . we are 29-6, and we made it to the Sweet 16 and we put Buffalo in people’s mouths — the name in people’s mouths,” said Buffalo junior Cierra Dillard, who scored a game-high 29 points against South Carolina. “It’s great to see.”

After a dismal first quarter, South Carolina recovered to lead 40-31 at halftime. South Carolina trailed 17-16 after a first quarter in which its eight turnovers led to 10 Buffalo points, but the Gamecocks used a 16-3 run shortly before halftime to pull ahead for good.

South Carolina flirted with a double-digit lead for much of the third quarter, but Dillard made enough big shots in the fourth to keep things interesting. Buffalo trailed by as few as five points in a final period, but South Carolina ended on a 17-7 run to clinch its spot in the Elite Eight.

“I’m so thrilled to go on this journey with these young ladies. What fight, what character,” Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. “They were so down and they just kept coming and believing and leaving it out there. Just really over the moon when it comes to these young ladies.”

For South Carolina, senior A’ja Wilson had 20 points and 13 rebounds, while redshirt junior Alexis Jennings added 20 points and nine rebounds to help end Buffalo’s season.

Legette-Jack said the sting from Saturday’s loss won’t last too long for her group — and that feeling won’t be the season’s lasting memory.

“Right now, these competitive young ladies, they are going to struggle for the next day,” Legette-Jack said, “but, when it’s all said and done, we’re going to be just so proud.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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