BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck challenged one of the basic theories of NCAA postseason play Saturday. Connecticut's trio of freshmen acted as if they were seasoned veterans.
Although it was their first appearance in the Sweet 16, the freshmen played like they had been there many times before. The trio combined for 35 points on 16-for-28 shooting and committed only one turnover between them in a 76-50 blowout of Maryland
"Our freshman were great today; that's kind of the story of the game," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I thought they were the key to the game today for sure."
Thanks to that youth movement, top-seeded UConn (32-4) will keep on dancing in the Bridgeport Regional. The win over No. 4 seed Marlyand sends the Huskies to the Elite Eight for the eighth consecutive time. UConn will play No. 2 seed Kentucky (Monday, 7:30 p.m.) in a rematch of last year's regional final won by UConn 80-65 in Kingston, R.I.
UConn was led by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart, each finishing with a game-high 17 points. Mosqueda-Lewis added seven rebounds and three assists to her totals while Stewart collected eight rebounds and blocked four shots.
"Tonight was a very physical game and we knew that coming in," Stewart said. "Ever since the last Maryland game [in the regular season] and going forward in the season, I tried to get better with dealing with the physicality and I did a better job of that today."
With just eight seconds remaining in the first half, Auriemma was called for a technical after a heated argument with the referees over a no-call on what Auriemma believed to be a foul. Alyssa Thomas made the technical free throw and Tianna Hawkins hit a jumper on the ensuing possession, cutting UConn's lead to nine going into the half.
"That was the dumbass in me, that's what that was" Auriemma said about getting the technical foul. "I cost our team four points and at this stage of my life, I should be way past that."
Only four fouls were called in the first half of the game, not counting the technical. The first foul of the game was called on Hawkins with 8:32 remaining in the first half.
Despite the single-digit lead at the half, UConn was able to open it up after halftime as the Huskies began the half on a 9-0 run over the first 3:02. After that it was all UConn as the Huskies outscored Maryland 41-24 in the final half.
"We've already played Maryland this year and we knew coming into the game that a key thing on defense was stopping Alyssa Thomas," Mosqueda-Lewis said about their strategy against Maryland. "She's a great offensive player. Their whole team is aggressive and they were on the glass the whole game. We had to make sure we were as aggressive, matching their intensity and making sure we knew where Alyssa was."
The Huskies held Thomas to 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting from the floor. UConn also out-rebounded Maryland 41-36. The Terrapins we the No. 2 rebounding team in the nation for most the year.
"Connecticut makes good teams look bad and you saw that on display today," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "They had firepower and open looks late in the shot clock. We really struggled against their defense. They made it difficult."
Kentucky learned that the hard way last season.
"Our defense has been really good all year long and it needs to be really good Monday night," Auriemma said about the matchup with Wildcats. "Kentucky is the kind of team that plays similar to us."
Last season, the Huskies defeated the Wildcats 80-65 en route to their 13th Final Four appearance. Mosqueda-Lewis had 18 points and seven rebounds in that game and Stefanie Dolson had 13 points and eight rebounds.
"They like to string together some runs, their pressure is something that we have to deal with, but we played them last year," Auriemma said about Kentucky. "We've seen enough of them that I think we have a pretty good idea of what we have to do and I think they have a pretty good idea of what they have to do and it's just a matter of going out and doing it."
Kentucky defeated No. 6 seed Delaware 69-62 in the first game Saturday. Jennifer O'Neil lead the way for the Wildcats with 19 points and four assists. A'dia Mathies had 16 points and nine rebounds.
Much like Maryland, Kentucky is also a big team that poses a physical threat for the Huskies.
"To be back in the final eight, given what we've been through all year, I'm really proud of them," Auriemma said about his team. "They've hung in there... We've beaten some the best teams in America by a lot. So I know how good we can be. I know how good we can be. We just need to be good again Monday night."
If the youngest Huskies come through again, that might not be a problem.
"They didn't play like freshmen at all," Dolson said. "They came out confident and ready to play. They knew what they needed to do for our team and what they can do."
The Associated Press and UConnPlaybook.com managing editor Ken Davis contributed to this story.