Stew Milne, Associated Press
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.
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 to the senior.
"It's even sweeter because this is a team effort, it wasn't one or two people getting us there," she 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 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.
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 lay-in. Then the Huskies started a parade to the free throw line, with whistle after whistle. The Huskies converted 12 free throws during the game-changing run.
While the Huskies were scoring points, their vaunted defense was stymieing the Wildcats. Kentucky torched UConn for 39 points, the most allowed in a first half this season by the Huskies.
The Wildcats found it much tougher to score in the second half. During UConn's burst, Kentucky could only get two field goals over a span of 9 minutes.
Mosqueda-Lewis' 3-pointer with 7:26 left capped UConn's burst and made it 69-52.
Kentucky (28-7) could get no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
Samarie Walker scored 14 to lead the Wildcats.
It's been a strange season for UConn. Despite running through the early part of its schedule, Auriemma knew it was just a matter of time before the team's shortcomings were exposed. Losses to Baylor and Notre Dame on the road were understandable, but it wasn't until the end of February that UConn really came to a crossroads.
The Huskies lost to St. John's at home on senior night snapping a 99-game home winning streak. Nine days later the Huskies fell to Notre Dame. Those two defeats got the Huskies refocused and they've been unstoppable ever since. The Huskies cruised to the Big East tournament championship and rolled through their first three NCAA tournament games.
Now the Huskies are back in the Final Four for the 13th time in the last 18 years.
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