KINGSTON, R.I. — Before the season started, Geno Auriemma figured his Connecticut Huskies wouldn’t be good enough to make it to the Final Four.
A funny thing happened along the way: His starless team jelled and now UConn is back in the national semifinals for a fifth straight season.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points and top-seed Connecticut beat Kentucky 80-65 on 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. 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 a while.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18 for UConn (33-4), which will play Notre Dame on Sunday in Denver. It will be a rematch of last season’s national semifinal game and the fourth time these two teams have met this year. The Irish won the first two meetings and the Huskies took the Big East tournament championship game.
“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.
The Huskies matched their own school mark of five straight trips to the national semifinals set from 2000-04. LSU 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.
NOTRE DAME 80, MARYLAND 49: The Sky’s the limit for revenge-minded Notre Dame — especially with its star guard playing like this.
Skylar Diggins had a triple-double and Notre Dame earned its second straight Final Four berth by beating Maryland 80-49 on Tuesday night in the Raleigh Regional final.
Diggins did it all for the top-seeded Fighting Irish (34-3).
The Big East player of the year and AP All-America selection finished with 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds — and, for good measure, five steals. She kept Notre Dame’s four-guard lineup humming and causing the second-seeded Terrapins fits all night.
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 low-post-oriented Maryland. A huge run late in the first half essentially ended this one at halftime and propelled them to their fourth Final Four trip and second in a row.
All four No. 1 seeds are headed to Denver — the first time that’s happened since 1989 — so once the Irish arrive in the Rockies, maybe they’ll find a close game there for a change. Only one of Notre Dame’s four tournament wins was closer than 31 points.
A loss in last year’s national championship game provided a season’s worth of focus and motivation for the Irish, who moved two victories away from the title that eluded them last year. A familiar foe awaits: Connecticut, which beat Notre Dame 63-54 earlier this month in the Big East title game. Notre Dame did beat the Huskies in both meetings in the regular season.
Alyssa Thomas scored 17 points and Tianna Hawkins and Alicia DeVaughn added 10 apiece for Maryland (31-5). After rallying from 18 points to beat reigning national champion Texas A&M two days earlier in the regional semifinal, the Terps finally slipped into a deficit they couldn’t escape.
Notre Dame raced out to a 19-point lead in the first half, wasted no time after halftime pushing it into the 20s and Maryland simply couldn’t recover while being denied its fourth Final Four trip and first since its national title in 2006.
The location and scenario made for a disturbing parallel for Maryland’s seniors who were freshmen in 2009 when they won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title and breezed to the Raleigh Regional semifinal, only to come up short against a determined Big East opponent. Back then, it was Louisville.
This time, the Irish broke things open midway through the first half, holding the Terps without a field goal for roughly 5½ minutes during a 26-7 run that pushed their lead well into double figures. Diggins scored seven points during the run while Achonwa had eight, including a pretty layup off a pick-and-roll that put Notre Dame up 38-19 with 2:15 before the break.
That burst was marked by the strong guard play usually expected from Notre Dame — along with some impressive work underneath, where the Irish made all the hustle plays and got to nearly every loose ball and rebound. The rebounding margin was at its widest when the Irish were up 22-9.