SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Maya Moore and her Connecticut Huskies got past one real big obstacle blocking their path.
So after pulling away from 6-foot-8 freshman Brittney Griner and Baylor for a 70-50 win Sunday night and their 77th straight win, the Huskies are ready for a rematch with Stanford, this time for the NCAA championship.
A win Tuesday night and they’ll be the first women’s team to go undefeated in consecutive seasons.
UConn was tested and threatened for one of the rare times during its streak. Ahead 41-38 with 15 minutes left, the Huskies responded. Coach Geno Auriemma actually enjoyed it, in fact.
“I liked coaching tonight. We’ve played a lot of basketball this year and there haven’t been a lot of opportunities where we’ve been challenged and pushed to that extent as we were tonight,” Auriemma said. “We like the challenge and the competitiveness of the game. Makes you feel like you really accomplished something. We feel like we really earned that win, accomplished something.”
Moore had 34 points and 12 rebounds while Tina Charles added 21 points and 13 boards for UConn (38-0), which beat Stanford 80-68 on Dec. 23 in Hartford. That’s the closest any team has come all season to the Huskies, who have won every game during their streak by double digits.
Stanford, which beat Oklahoma 73-66 in the first semifinal, handed UConn its last loss back in the 2008 Final Four.
“The matchup doesn’t matter to us,” Charles said. “Whoever is going to be in the way, that’s who we’re going to have to go up against. It’s nothing personal or anything like that.”
Tuesday’s championship game will be the sixth time that the top two teams in the final Top 25 poll will meet for the title, with the last coming in 2002 when UConn beat Oklahoma in San Antonio.
“I’m so excited. It’s what we work for all season,” Moore said. “I’m almost speechless.”
Most of the pregame attention focused on the intriguing matchup at center between Griner and Charles, The Associated Press player of the year. Griner finished with 13 points and five blocks.
“She just did what every other post does,” Griner said. “She was just a lot better than most other posts. I won’t say I got frustrated or upset. It was just a battle. She has more experience.”
But the Lady Bears (27-10) had no answer for Moore. Inside and out, the three-time All-American tormented Baylor.
“Maya made, obviously, some huge shots,” Auriemma said.
The Lady Bears cut a 13-point halftime deficit to 41-38 nearly 5 minutes into the second half, drawing huge cheers from an Alamodome crowd that was a sea of yellow and green. Baylor’s campus is only a 3-hour bus ride away in Waco, and the Lady Bears were the first team to reach the Final Four in their home state since Missouri State made it to St. Louis in 2001.
With the score 45-40, Moore quickly ended any chances of a monumental upset, scoring six of the next eight points to restore the Huskies’ double-digit lead. Her jumper made it 53-40 with 10:26 left.
“I looked up at the other four teammates and all I saw was positive body language. Got a steal off the bat and didn’t look back,” Moore said.
Baylor never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.
Morghan Medlock scored 14 to lead the Lady Bears, who were able to stay with UConn as Moore and Charles didn’t get much help from the rest of their team. The other Huskies combined for just 15 points.
“It was definitely there for us to take,” Griner said. “It was mistakes and letting it slip through our fingers. It was right there.”
From the outset the Huskies went right at Griner. Tiffany Hayes hit a layup and drew a foul on the freshman on two of the Huskies’ first three possessions. When Connecticut wasn’t going at Griner, Charles was drawing her out of the lane, freeing up the basket for easy layups.
Moore, who came into the game shooting 64 percent from the field in the NCAA tournament, including a mind-boggling 70 percent on 3-pointers, was unstoppable early on. She missed only one of her first six shots as UConn held a 13-5 lead in the first 7 minutes.
After Melissa Jones’ three-point play cut the deficit to five, UConn scored 12 straight points with Charles and Moore combining for 10 of them. Moore was hitting shots from everywhere. She connected on 3-pointers, layups, and even a floating jumper down the lane.
Charles hit a jumper over Griner from the top of the key and took it right at her for a layin.
Griner finally ended the run with a layup to make it 25-10 midway through the half. It was her first basket of the game. The big freshman scored eight of Baylor’s next 12 points, but the Lady Bears couldn’t get within single digits.
“I think she’s going to be a great player down the road. Maybe I’ll get a chance to coach her someday,” said Auriemma, also the U.S. women’s basketball coach for the 2012 Olympics.
Baylor trailed 39-26 at halftime.
Connecticut has entered the NCAAs unbeaten on four prior occasions. It won the title in 1995, 2002 and last season, and lost to Tennessee in the regional final in ’97.
The Huskies getting this far was no surprise. Baylor’s presence was.
The Lady Bears had made it to the Final Four once before, in 2005, and won the national championship that season. Coach Kim Mulkey expected to challenge for more once Griner arrived, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon. With only Medlock graduating, the Lady Bears could be back a few more times before Griner is done.
Griner had been a huge part of Baylor’s NCAA tournament run this season. She shattered both the single-game and tournament record for blocks.
While the freshman has been a one-woman defensive force, UConn has been putting up its own staggering numbers on defense. The Huskies had cruised through the first four rounds allowing opponents to average just 40 points.