ALBANY, N.Y. -- The road has taken the University of Connecticut women's basketball team to a record 11 consecutive NCAA Final Fours, but it's a journey it's never taken for granted.
Less than 24 hours after their 94-65 rout of South Carolina in the NCAA Albany Regional final at the Times Union Center Monday night, the Huskies arrived in Columbus, Ohio, the Final Four host. They will face archrival Notre Dame - the Spokane (Washington) Regional representative - in the second national semifinal Friday night at Nationwide Arena.
"It is one of the hardest things to do just to get to a Final Four," UConn senior Kia Nurse said. "Anyone that's been to a Final Four will say that. It gets overlooked a lot around us because we do go so many times. But that's a testament to the coaches here and what they do every day to make sure that we're prepared and we have an opportunity to do this. We're looking forward to Friday, my last Final Four."
Only one four-year player in coach Geno Auriemma's 33 seasons - Kris Lamb - did not go to a Final Four, though she was on staff as a graduate assistant for the Huskies' 1991 run. Nurse and classmate Gabby Williams became the eighth consecutive UConn senior class to make it to four Final Fours in a row. Class of 2013 graduates Caroline Doty and Heather Buck were part of five Final Four teams as each had a medical redshirt year. The second-longest consecutive Final Four streak is five by UConn (2000-04), LSU (2004-08), and Notre Dame (2011-15). The Huskies won four national championships in that five-year stretch while the Tigers and Irish won none.
UConn is seeking its seventh NCAA title out of its current run. Three times it has lost in the Final Four semifinals - twice to Notre Dame (2011-12) and last year to Mississippi State.
"When the season starts, you're not thinking too far ahead," UConn junior Katie Lou Samuelson said. "But everything we did this year was to lead up to this moment and get another shot at the Final Four and get back to where we were last year. There are no guarantees that it's going to go differently for us. We have to be ones to make the changes. We're happy to have this opportunity again and once we're done celebrating here (in Albany) it will be all focus, all business."
The Huskies started the season as the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in the Associated Press poll with four returning starters including three All-Americans. They stayed in that spot through the final poll that preceded the NCAA tournament.
But it hasn't been easy. Samuelson suffered a left foot sprain on Nov. 17 and missed four games including her homecoming at UCLA. She'd miss a fifth game with a left ankle injury in January. Crystal Dangerfield missed two games and has dealt with painful shin splints in her left leg since New Year's. Williams has played through a left hip issue much of the year and saw her streak of 141 consecutive games play end when she sat out the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal against Cincinnati.
Twice they overcame double-digit deficits - against Notre Dame in the fourth quarter and Texas in the first quarter - to keep their perfect record intact. After beating Saint Francis of Pennsylvania by 88 points in the NCAA first round, they beat Quinnipiac, Duke, and South Carolina by an average of 22.3 points to reach Columbus.
"It's been a long year filled with ups and downs," UConn junior Azura Stevens said. "We've done a good job of keeping what happened last year in our minds but we don't lose focus over it. To get back to this point where we did lose last year is a good accomplishment, but we're not finished yet. We'll celebrate this game but we'll quickly turn to the next one."
The Huskies closed their Dec. 3 game with Notre Dame on a 22-3 run to win 80-71. Williams (migraine headache) did not play in the second half and Samuelson (ankle) sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter. It will be their seventh NCAA tournament game against the Irish and first since UConn's victory in the 2015 national championship game.
Notre Dame rallied from a six-point halftime deficit to defeat Oregon 84-74 Monday night.
The Huskies made quick work of the Gamecocks to end South Carolina's one-year reign as national champion. Williams was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player as she had 23 points, five rebounds, and five assists in once again getting the better of Gamecocks' All-American A'ja Wilson. But it was the play of point guard Dangerfield, who had 21 points -- 19 in the decisive first half -- and six assists that got the Huskies energized.
"It can't get better for us than having Crystal take over the game like that and play as well as she did," Samuelson said. "She starts everything for us and we follow her lead."
Dangerfield made all five of her 3-point shots in the first half as South Carolina made no effort to challenge. The Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native did go just 1-for-10 from the floor in UConn's win in South Carolina on Feb. 1, but she was a 44.7 percent shooter from behind the arc going in and a 46.2 percent shooter leaving.
"When you're in a zone like that," Nurse said, "and you're knocking in shots and making those reads, and for some reason the other team doesn't change their game plan to guard you, why not shoot it every single time? It was fabulous to see Crystal play that way."
The Huskies hope she has two more games like it in her.
Louisville and Mississippi State will play in the first national semifinal on Friday. The Cardinals are in the Final Four for the third time having lost to UConn in the national championship game in 2009 and 2013. The Bulldogs are back after making their first appearance last year and everyone in UConn Nation knows what happened last March 31 in Dallas.
Friday's winners will play for the crown Sunday.
"After the way it ended for us last year we were in rush to get back," Williams said. "But you can only handle what's right in front of you. That we've been able to take things one day at a time and not look ahead is why we're in the position that we're in."
Williams has been a leader on the Huskies in their tradition of messing up the hair of a postseason tournament MOP award winner. The tables were turned on her Monday night after she was honored but, as usual, Williams was prepared.
"There's a lot of gel in there, so they couldn't move it," Williams said with a laugh. "They tried."
During the game, South Carolina tried to contain Williams and the Gamecocks, too, had no success.
"She was amazing, as usual," Stevens said. "She had so much energy offensively, so much energy defensively. She really stepped up, but that's no surprise. That's what Gabby does."
It was the fifth straight postseason event that Williams has been named to the all-tournament team. A year ago she was recognized by the American Athletic Conference championship event and at the Bridgeport Regional and Final Four. She made the AAC all-tournament team earlier this month,
In four NCAA Tournament games, Williams has averaged 18.3 points on 73.9 percent shooting from the floor (34 for 46), 6.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists. She is within three rebounds of 1,000 for her career and becoming the seventh member of UConn's 1,000/1,000 club.
"I felt good today, felt bouncy," Williams said with a smile. "I don't know if it's different than any other day. We were playing great team ball so I was able to get a lot of good movement.
"I want my teammates to know they can count on me. I don't know if that's reflected through a Most Outstanding Player award but rather by my teammates trust in me and through our ability to get things done. I never expected it. I never thought about it. It's not something any of us thinks about. I thought any of our starting five could have gotten that award."
Joining Williams on the all-regional team were teammates Dangerfield and Samuelson, South Carolina's Wilson, and Buffalo's Cierra Dillard.
NEW TO THE DANCE
During the fourth quarter Monday night with the outcome decided, Auriemma turned to Stevens and was animated while talking to the redshirt junior forward. He had a similar conversation with freshman Megan Walker.
"He was talking to me and Megan about how at this point of the tournament, this time of year, you have to try and win every possession," Stevens said. "And you have to have a chip on your shoulder to do that. I think we did a good job of doing that tonight. For example, playing against their big kids, even if I didn't get a rebound I had to do something to make sure my teammate got it and not them. You have to have that competitiveness to win at everything."
With the way UConn's starters played, the Huskies didn't need much in reserve. Stevens played 14 minutes and had four points, two rebounds, two assists, and a blocked shot. Walker had two points, four rebounds, and an assist in 12 minutes.
For both, this is their first Final Four.
"There's a lot of excitement about it but we're not done yet," Stevens said. "We're looking forward to going to Columbus."
TURNING THE TABLES
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley became the third person to play against UConn in the NCAA tournament and coach against the Huskies in the tourney. The others are Kelly Greenberg and Tonya Cardoza.
The trio were winners as players. Staley and Cardoza were teammates when Virginia topped UConn 61-55 in the 1991 Final Four semifinals in New Orleans. Greenberg had 10 assists -- still a record in NCAA play for a UConn opponent -- in La Salle's 72-63 first-round win in 1989 at the Storrs Field House.
But the trio fell to 0-3 as coaches with the Gamecocks' loss. Cardoza's Temple team was routed by UConn 90-36 in a 2010 second-round game in Norfolk, Virginia, while Greenberg's Pennsylvania club dropped a 91-55 decision in a 2004 first-round game in Bridgeport.
A day after being named to the Associated Press All-America first team, Samuelson was chosen to the United States Basketball Writers Association five-player All-America first team Tuesday. Williams, as she was with the AP, was a second-team choice by the USBWA ... Nurse's pass to Napheesa Collier for a fourth-quarter layup was the senior guard's only assist, but it gave her 100 for the season. UConn has five players in triple figures led by Williams (184) and followed by Dangerfield (138), Collier (120), and Samuelson (119) ... UConn Class of 2018 signee Olivia Nelson-Ododa reached the final of the slam dunk competition at the Powerade Jam Fest in Atlanta Monday. The event was won by Duke recruit Zion Williamson. Fellow UConn signee teamed with Romeo Langford and Candice Wiggins to win the Legends and Stars Shootout.