KINGSTON, R.I. — Penn State coach Coquese Washington hopes her team will learn from its first trip to the regionals in eight years.
The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions were jittery from the start and never could fully recover to challenge top-seed Connecticut in a 77-59 loss Sunday in the Kingston regional semifinals.
"I think it's a very good step for us," Washington said. "We wanted to improve every single season and we've done that. When I look at the game one thing I saw was that Connecticut played like a team that has played in a Sweet 16 before. They understood how long the game was and the patience you need to execute with."
Penn State came into the game averaging 87.5 points in the NCAA tournament, but the Nittany Lions couldn't find any rhythm on offense against the stingy UConn defense.
"We played too fast," 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."
UConn got a balanced offense that featured five players in double figures. Bria Hartley scored 20 points and Kelly Faris added 15 for the Huskies, who advanced to the regional finals for the seventh straight season. The Huskies will face the winner between Gonzaga and Kentucky on 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 nine points to pull to 53-38, but the Nittany Lions could get no closer.
Mia Nickson scored 19 points and Maggie Lucas added 15 for Penn State. Alex Bentley, the team's second-leading scorer, had just eight 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.
"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 got off to a quick start, scoring 14 of the first 18 points. Hartley had six during the opening spurt. UConn appeared ready to blow the game wide open, extending the advantage to 24-10 on Hayes' layup, but Penn State scored 11 of the next 13 points to cut its deficit to five 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' 3-pointer beginning the key run.
This was the Huskies' 19th straight trip to the round of 16, while the Nittany Lions advanced this far for the first time since 2004 — when they lost to Connecticut in the regional finals.
"It's something positive, it hurts right now," Bentley said. "You never want to go home, never want to lose. I'm proud of my teammates and the season we had. We fought very hard and put a lot of work in."
Washington has done an incredible job rebuilding the program since taking over in 2007. The Nittany Lions won their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2004 this year. They also posted their highest win total since 2004-05.
This was the second straight NCAA bid under Washington's watch for Penn State, once a Top 25 staple before slipping during the last few years of longtime coach Rene Portland's tenure.
Penn State was able to advance to Kingston by winning two games at LSU, including beating the host team in the second round. Winning on the road has been no problem for this squad, which was 7-1 away from home in Big Ten conference games this season.