NEW ORLEANS — You just don’t break your promise to the Chamber of Commerce of Middlesex, Conn.
Last month, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma assured the civic group that there was no way his team would lose to Notre Dame four times in one season — and it certainly wasn’t going to fall short in the game that mattered most.
The Huskies were as good as his word Sunday, taking command with a run late in the first half and then never really letting the Fighting Irish within striking distance in the last 20 minutes en route to a 83-65 victory in the second semifinal of the Women’s Final Four on Sunday in the New Orleans Arena.
That’s the same building where UConn won the fifth of its seven national championships in 2004. And it’s the one where the Huskies will try to tie Tennessee for the most by any school at eight Tuesday against another Big East (soon to be American Athletic) Conference foe Louisville.
UConn is 7-0 in title games and beat Louisville 72-58 in their only meeting this season.
“We’ve got a big problem Tuesday night,” Auriemma said, “because Louisville thinks they’re the best team in the country right now.”
But first, the Huskies undoubtedly are taking a few minutes to enjoy Sunday’s win.
“You’re only going to get great teams when you get this far,” Auriemma said. “This is one night we needed to be better.”
And the Huskies were just that against a team that had not only beaten them three times this season but also had beaten them in the past two Final Fours.
Freshman Breanna Stewart, the National High School Player of the Year who came to UConn precisely to add more championships, scored 29 points to lead the Huskies (34-4).
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence recently,” said Stewart, who had struggled much of the year but was the MVP of the Bridgeport Regional.
Auriemma, who has coached some of the game’s best in precisely this situation, paid Stewart the highest compliment.
“I don’t remember a player having a better game in this environment,” he said.
But Stewart wasn’t alone.
UConn shot 50 percent in the first half, 47 percent for the game. And after leading 39-29 at halftime, it never led by fewer than six points in the second half. The last time it was that was close was at 61-55 with 6:26 left.
It was the kind of juncture when the Huskies have come up short this season in three losses to Notre Dame and one to Baylor.
But on this night, that was when UConn showed how far it has come in the past three weekends — and why the Huskies and Tennessee have been the dominant programs of the past 20 years.
With Notre Dame (35-2) looking to make its own run, UConn guard Kelly Faris, the team’s only senior starter, pulled out back-to-back offensive rebounds. The last resulted in Stefanie Dolson being fouled.
Dolson made her first free throw and missed the second. But Faris came up with another rebound and fed Stewart for a driving layup that made it 64-55 with 5:31 left.
After back-to-back turnovers, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ rebound and outlet pass to Bria Hartley pushed the lead to 11. Stewart then blocked a shot by Kayla McBride, rebounded another missed shot and was fouled.
Stewart made both shots, and it was 68-55 with 4:08 left. Notre Dame never got closer than 11 after that.
“Obviously (Notre Dame) went on their stretch and picked up the pressure,” Faris said. “We had a few too many turnovers, but we were able to count on different players at different times to make the plays when we needed it.”
As good a night as it was for Stewart, it was a tough finish for Notre Dame senior All-America guard Skylar Diggins.
Diggins made only 3-of-15 shots to finish with 10 points. At game’s end, she received a long hug from Auriemma, whose teams she had beaten in seven of their past eight meetings.
“It’s been a dream come true to play for my hometown school,” said Diggins, a rare homegrown Irish product from South Bend. “I had a great time going through it, and I wouldn’t want a different group of girls and a different group of coaches.”
Notre Dame shot 29.7 percent (22-74) after starting the game 2-of-19. But the Irish actually led for most of the first half by getting to the free-throw line (11-of-12) and adding 10 second-chance points.
But it started turning around in the final three minutes as the Huskies went on a 14-3 run and took a 39-29 lead into halftime. A 3-pointer by Hartley at 2:50 started it, giving the Huskies a 28-26 lead. Faris added a steal and a layup to put her team up by four.
When Diggins, who was 0-of-6 in the half, missed badly from behind the arc, Hartley converted a layup on the other end — and a back-and-forth game suddenly was a six-point advantage for the Huskies.
There may have been a long way to go, but Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw knew her team was in trouble.
“I don’t think we had a lot of confidence in executing,” she said. “That run might have been the ballgame right there.”
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