A balanced offense and a stingy defense carried Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies to another regional final.
Bria Hartley scored 20 points, Kelly Faris added 15, and top-seeded UConn advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s regional finals for the seventh straight year with a 77-59 win over Penn State Sunday in Kingston, R.I.
“We wanted to make sure that this was a team thing more than looking around for someone to have a big night,’’ Auriemma said. “The team would have to play great defense and the team would have to execute offensively. I was really happy after the game to sit back and say that’s exactly what it was.’’
The Huskies’ stellar defense stymied the Nittany Lions, who averaged 87.5 points in the first two games of the regional.
“It’s something we take a lot of pride in,’’ Faris said of the defense. “It’s something we work on day in and day out. Our offense stems from that. We play with four guards and a lot of switching and everyone has to know all the personnel. Today, it came down to everyone talking and helping each other out. We covered well for each other.’’
The Huskies will face Kentucky, which beat Gonzaga in the other semifinal, Tuesday night with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
Leading 36-27 late in the first half, UConn (32-4) used a 17-2 run spanning halftime to blow the game open. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis started the spurt with a 3-pointer. Two free throws by Tiffany Hayes made it 43-29 at the break. UConn then scored the first 10 points of the second half to extend the margin to 53-29. Hartley capped the run with a lay-in.
Penn State (26-7) scored the next 9 points to pull to 53-38, but the Nittany Lions could get no closer.
“We played too fast,’’ Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “We shot a lot of quick shots. We didn’t show enough patience on the offensive end. When you do that against a team like Connecticut, you give up a lot of points in transition. Once they get on a roll they’re tough to stop.’’
Mia Nickson scored 19 points and Maggie Lucas added 15 for Penn State. Alex Bentley, the team’s second-leading scorer, had just 8 points.
UConn made Bentley and Lucas work hard for every point. The Huskies, who lead the nation allowing just over 45 points a game, didn’t allow the pair many open looks at the basket and they combined to shoot 7 for 31.
“We knew going into the game that UConn was a good defensive team,’’ Bentley said. “They gave a great effort and played good team defense.’’
The Huskies got off to a quick start, opening with a 14-4 run. Hartley had 6 during the opening spurt. UConn appeared ready to blow the game wide open, extending the advantage to 24-10 on Hayes’s layup, but Penn State scored 11 of the next 13 points to cut its deficit to 5 on Nickson’s free throws.
That’s when Mosqueda-Lewis and Hartley took over. The pair scored the next 11 points for UConn, with Mosqueda-Lewis’s 3-pointer beginning the key run.
Kentucky 79, Gonzaga 62 - Keyla Snowden made five 3-pointers, hitting a pair of them to turn back the Zags as the Wildcats advanced to the regional finals for the second time in three years.
Snowden had 17 points, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range, and Samarie Walker scored 16 with 12 rebounds for second-seeded Kentucky (28-6).
Kayla Standish scored 25 for No. 11 seed Gonzaga (28-6), which reached the round of 16 for the third consecutive year.
Kentucky led by 21 in the second half before the Zags cut it to 59-51. Three times Gonzaga had the ball with a chance to further trim the deficit, but it couldn’t do so.
The Wildcats finally pulled away on their fourth trip down, when Snowden hit a 3 to make it an 11-point game. It was 64-53 when Snowden hit another 3, and Gonzaga never threatened again.
What had been a decent crowd for the early game between local favorite Connecticut and Penn State dwindled to just a few hundred when Kentucky took a 43-28 lead into the half. And just a few hundred fans remained when the Wildcats band played “My Old Kentucky Home’’ after the final buzzer.
Kentucky led the entire game, opening a 15-point lead at halftime and turning it into a 21-point advantage with 14 minutes left.