Big East schools Connecticut and Notre Dame posted victories to secure berths in the NCAA Women's Final Four.
KINGSTON, R.I. — Before the season started, coach Geno Auriemma figured his Connecticut Huskies wouldn’t be good enough to make it to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.
A funny thing happened along the way: His starless team jelled and UConn is back in the national semifinals for a fifth consecutive season.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points and top-seeded Connecticut beat Kentucky 80-65 Tuesday night in the Kingston Regional final.
“We like to go to the Final Four every year,” Auriemma said. “I think we’re also realistic. Some years it’s going to be easier than others. Expectations are always there, regardless of the probability. This year was less than other years. Makes it more worthwhile.
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“Last year, we went as a team led by Maya Moore. This year, there isn’t any of that. The University of Connecticut is going to the Final Four and I think that’s pretty cool once in awhile.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18 points for UConn (33-4), which will play Big East Conference rival Notre Dame (34-3) on Sunday in Denver.
It will be a rematch of last year’s national-semifinal game and the fourth time the teams have played this season. The Fighting Irish won the first two meetings and the Huskies took the Big East tournament final.
“It’s kind of tough playing one team four times in one season, but I think we’re up to the challenge,” Mosqueda-Lewis said.
All four No. 1 seeds are headed to the Final Four — the first time that has happened since 1989.
In Sunday’s second semifinal game, Baylor (38-0) faces Stanford (35-1). The championship game is Tuesday.
Hayes, who was selected most outstanding player of the regional, has been to a Final Four in all four of her seasons.
Getting there this time was special for the senior.
“It’s even sweeter because this is a team effort, it wasn’t one or two people getting us there,” Hayes said. “We all had our part in it. Everyone had their way of helping us get there. Glad to be back for the fourth time.”
The Huskies matched their school mark of five straight trips to the national semifinals set from 2000 to 2004. Louisiana State and Stanford have also accomplished the feat.
Unlike their previous four trips to the regional finals, which were quick blowouts, the Huskies had to work hard to pull away from the Wildcats (28-7).
UConn led 48-47 early in the second half before turning up its defense.
The Huskies used a 21-4 spurt to take command. Hayes, the lone senior on the team, was the catalyst, scoring seven points during the run. She got it started with a layin. Then UConn started a parade to the free-throw line, with whistle after whistle. The Huskies converted 12 free throws during the game-changing run.
Irish beat Maryland
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Sky’s the limit for Notre Dame — especially with its standout guard playing this well.
Skylar Diggins had a triple-double and Notre Dame earned its second consecutive Final Four berth, beating Maryland 80-49 in the Raleigh Regional final.
Diggins did it all for the Fighting Irish against the Terrapins (31-5).
The Big East player of the year and AP All-American finished with 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and five steals.
“Our number-one point coming into this game was rebounding and boxing out,” the 5-foot-9 Diggins said. “I thought I’d get my little self in there and see what I could do.”
Natalie Achonwa added 18 points while Kayla McBride had 16 and Natalie Novosel finished with 14 for Notre Dame, which built a 46-27 rebounding advantage against Maryland.
One of Notre Dame’s four tournament victories has been closer than 31 points.
A loss to Texas A&M in last year’s NCAA final provided a season’s worth of focus and motivation for the Irish, who moved two victories from the title that eluded them last year.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this team,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, “to handle the expectations all year long of being a number-one seed and the target on our backs and to come through and make it back to the Final Four.”