ALBANY, N.Y. -- Crystal Dangerfield arrived in Storrs being thought of as the next great point guard for the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team.
She had her moments -- think Baylor in her second career game -- in an up-and-down freshman season that ended with her watching the final shot of the season in Dallas from the bench. She returned with a new confidence as a sophomore and through the first half of the regular season was as good as anyone in the country before shin splints in her left leg began limiting her practice time and in some cases her effectiveness.
But on a magic night Monday at the Times Union Center, the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native put forth a first half that was as good as any of the Huskies' greats have played. By the time she fed Azura Stevens for a layup to close out the second-quarter scoring, UConn's berth to the NCAA Final Four was all but secured.
Dangerfield scored 19 of her 21 points in a decisive first half as the top-seeded Huskies blasted No. 2 and defending national champion South Carolina 94-65 in the NCAA Albany Regional final before an enthusiastic pro-UConn crowd of 9,522.
"I walked into the locker room at halftime and said, 'Crystal is the best point guard that I've ever played with in my life,' " Stevens said. "The first half she had, the whole game she had, she's just amazing to play with. She has a complete game. She was able to knock in open shots and still find ways to get her teammates the ball in good positions."
The win gives UConn (36-0) its record 11th consecutive Final Four appearance (no one else has more than five straight) and 19th overall, moving it past Tennessee for most national semifinal berths. The Lady Vols had an 18-9 lead after winning their eighth national championship in 2008. UConn coach Geno Auriemma also passes the late, great Hall of Fame Tennessee coach Pat Summitt with his 19th Final Four.
The Huskies will face Spokane (Washington) Regional champion Notre Dame on Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The Irish advanced by beating Oregon 84-74. UConn defeated Notre Dame 80-71 on Dec. 3 at the XL Center, rallying from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit. It will be the fifth time that the Huskies and Irish will play in the national semifinals. They've also played twice for the national championship. Louisville and Mississippi State will play in Friday's first game.
"You were hoping to get to one Final Four, but that was a long time ago," Auriemma said. "After that first one I thought, 'That's it for us, we may never come back.' A lot has happened since then. It's been amazing to see it. Who ever thinks when they get into coaching says, 'This is what we're going to do, this is how it's going to play out,' is crazy. This has just been one more surprise after the other."
All-American Gabby Williams led UConn with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists, and was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player. She was joined on the all-regional team by teammates Dangerfield and Katie Lou Samuelson, South Carolina's A'ja Wilson and Buffalo's Cierra Dillard.
"I never expected it. I never thought about it," Williams said. "It's not something any of us thinks out. I thought any of our starting five could have gotten that award."
All five starters finished in double figures with Samuelson adding 17, Napheesa Collier 16 and Kia Nurse 11.
Dangerfield wasn't just outstanding, though, she was spectacular. Conceded the perimeter shot by the Gamecocks' defense, she was 5-for-5 from behind the arc in the opening 20 minutes and had four assists to no turnovers as UConn built a 21-point lead at the break.
Have former national Player of the Year winners Jennifer Rizzotti, Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi, or former Nancy Lieberman Award winners Renee Montgomery or Moriah Jefferson done it better for a half?
"Those guys had a lot of great halves," said UConn assistant coach and former All-American guard Shea Ralph, who played with Bird and Taurasi and coached Montgomery and Jefferson. "The difference with Crystal is how she's grown, how quickly she's gotten better, how quickly she's made an impact. I don't know if I've seen that in my time here. But you're asking me to compare her to a lot of great point guards. Is she up there? She's up there. Can she get a lot better? She's got to be better defensively. She's got to make open shots consistently like she did tonight. In terms of what she's capable, she could be one of the greats.
"That first half tonight was almost perfect, not quite," Ralph added with a smile.
Dangerfield's 3 to end the first quarter made it 30-12. Her pass to Stevens made it 54-33. The Huskies' biggest lead was 32 in the final minute of the third quarter.
Among the all-time great point guards watching was South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, whose performances in college, the professional ranks and the Olympics landed her in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Staley was also Dangerfield's coach with the United States U-19 national team that won the gold medal at the 2015 FIBA U-19 world championships.
"It was special," Dangerfield said. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Staley. Outside of my own coaches, she was one of my favorites and she does a great job with her team. Tonight it was us and we wanted that win.
"I wanted to stay aggressive. We were moving the ball well and my teammates were finding me. They were leaving me open so I needed to knock them in."
Dangerfield entered the game shooting 44.7 percent from behind the arc on the season, but was just 1-for-10 from the floor and missed four of five treys in UConn's rout of South Carolina on Feb. 1.
"She made wide-open shots. They were practice shots, with her feet set and no one really around her," Staley said. "Certainly we didn't do a good job of staying close to home to her. We kind of dug ourselves in the hole by helping off too much.
"It was that kind of game in which we could not control it."
Dangerfield finished with six assists, one behind Samuelson. UConn had 25 assists attached to its 37 baskets with just seven turnovers.
Wilson, a South Carolina native who chose the Gamecocks over UConn and North Carolina four years ago, had 27 points and eight rebounds in her final game for the Gamecocks (29-7). South Carolina had never been to the Final Four before her arrival, but she couldn't lead her team to a win in five games against the Huskies.
UConn gets Notre Dame. It was in the national semifinals a year ago that the Huskies saw their 111-game winning streak and four-year reign as national champion end with an overtime loss to Mississippi State. They're back.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs and we've struggled a lot of times," Collier said. "That makes getting here so much sweeter. I'm so proud of this team."