ALBANY, N.Y. -- At the end of the first quarter Saturday, Gabby Williams grabbed a rebound and got out on the break that led to a beat-the-buzzer layup by Kia Nurse. Right before the halftime horn, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's senior All-America hit an 18-foot jump shot.
For 33 minutes, Williams did the things Williams has done throughout the 147 games she has played for the Huskies and the reason she'll have at least one more game to play.
The Sparks, Nevada, native had 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, and two blocked shots as No. 1 UConn advanced to the NCAA tournament Albany Regional final with a 72-59 win over fifth-seeded Duke before a pro-Huskies crowd of 10,658 at the Times Union Center.
"Gabby did everything we needed her to do and expected her to do," UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson said. "That's one thing that always comes out in March with her. She's going to play like that and play the best that she can. The way she took over and did all the things she does for us was really good."
UConn (35-0) will go for its record 11th consecutive Final Four appearance Monday night when it takes on No. 2 and reigning national champion South Carolina at the Times Union Center. The Gamecocks made it to the regional final with a 79-63 win over No. 11 Buffalo. The Huskies defeated South Carolina 83-58 in Columbia on Feb. 1, taking a 29-point halftime lead.
It will be the first time that UConn will play the reigning national champion in the NCAA tournament since 1997 when it lost to Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final in Iowa City, Iowa.
"The last time we played South Carolina we got out to a really early run," Williams said. "I don't think any of us are expecting it to be that easy again. We know they're going to put up a fight."
All-American Napheesa Collier had a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies. Samuelson added 15 points and Nurse 10. Azura Stevens, playing against Duke for the first time since her transfer from the school two years ago, finished with eight points, 12 rebounds, and three blocked shots.
In Williams' only previous appearance against the Blue Devils her freshman season she was a non-factor, playing just six minutes and scoring all five of her points in the final three minutes of a 31-point rout.
How much progress has she made? Here's what Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie had to say:
"I don't know her personally, but she seems just fabulous. She seems low maintenance, wonderful to coach, always goes hard. I think I'm going to echo Jay Bilas. Jay Bilas loves her, talks about her all the time, about just a wonderful player in women's basketball. I'm going to go with him and be on that club, the Gabby Williams Fan Club, because I think not only is she so consistent, but she just doesn't bat an eye to anything.
"She competes at an Olympic level of focus, and obviously I'm sure she's learned a great deal from Geno (Auriemma) and his staff. But I'll tell you what, she's a very special player. They just don't come around very much, and she's the closest thing to Maya Moore to me without the outside shooting as much, but still with that body type and the way she's consistent. She's very clever and very good, and she was a big problem for us."
Williams smiled when she heard what McCallie had said.
"Maya Moore without the outside shot. Just throw that in there, make sure you know," Williams said with a laugh. "I mean, it's a huge honor to even be in the same sentence as her. I think it's ... I don't know, I would never call myself Maya Moore. But that is a huge compliment."
Moore is the only player in UConn history with at least 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 steals. Williams could join her with eight rebounds against South Carolina.
The Huskies never trailed against Duke (24-9), scoring the first seven points in the opening 57 seconds. The Blue Devils found their footing and were within 20-14 after one quarter and 32-20 with just over minute to go in the half. But Nurse and Samuelson hit back-to-back treys and UConn regained possession with 5.8 seconds to go. Samuelson found Williams, who took a dribble inside the 3-point line and delivered her jumper that doubled up Duke, 40-20, at the break.
"The beginning of the game we got off to a quick start," Williams said. "And then it was almost like we didn't expect them to start back. We were just trying to win the game a little too quickly and all at once. So at the end of the second quarter,we just started taking it one possession at a time and started building our momentum, so that was kind of a good way to go into halftime."
The Blue Devils used an 11-2 run to pull within 13 but UConn closed the third quarter with seven unanswered points for a 51-31 lead. Duke netted the final six points to account for the final margin.
It was UConn's 13th straight Sweet 16 win and the closest since it beat Georgetown by five in Philadelphia in 2011.
"After the Quinnipiac game (last Monday), somebody said, 'You know, it was just one of those games, we had to grind it out,' " Auriemma said. "I don't know if people talk about 25-point games as a grind it out, but that's kind of where we are. That's the world we've created, and we're just doing our part to make women's basketball a little more competitive."
Leaonna Odom had 22 points to pace Duke, which has lost nine consecutive games against UConn since a win in the 2006 Bridgeport Regional final. But fifth-year senior guards Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell, who Duke promotes as the "Splash Sisters" due to their 3-point shooting ability, combined for just 16 points with Brown scoring 10. They entered having combined for 34 points per game.
"I thought there were some things that we could clean up," Nurse said. "But we did a good job of chasing around Brown and Greenwell. We understood that they would take a majority of their shots and they do a great job with each other. We tried to keep the ball out of their hands as much as possible and make their other players make plays."
The Huskies have also won 38 consecutive games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents dating back to a loss to North Carolina on Jan. 15, 2007.
UConn has never lost to South Carolina (6-0) but a loss Monday night would end the college careers of Nurse and Williams.
With 147 wins in 149 games, the seniors hope they have three more to go.
"The fact we have Gabby on our team is a bonus," Nurse said. "Like everyone sees every night from her, she contributes in so many ways at both ends. She puts the ball on the floor and stretches defenses, her passing ability, her rebounding, the defense she brings, all those things she does are tremendous. It's been great to have her on our side."
SOUTH CAROLINA 79, BUFFALO 63
All-American A'ja Wilson had 20 points and 13 rebounds as South Carolina ousted Buffalo in Saturday's first regional semifinal.
"I'm excited to get back to the Elite Eight," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Obviously I don't know a whole lot of people outside of our camp that thought we would be here today, but it's always good to prove others wrong and be odds beaters."
Alexis Jennings added 20 points and nine rebounds as the Bulls had no answer for the Gamecocks' inside tandem. South Carolina (29-6) had big advantages in points in the paint (52-30) and second-chance points (20-5). The Gamecocks won the battle of the boards 48-21.
South Carolina, which shot 50.8 percent from the floor but committed 26 turnovers, led 40-31 at halftime and 55-48 after three quarters. The Bulls were within eight with 3:20 left but Courtney Wilkins missed a 3-pointer for Buffalo and the Gamecocks closed the game on a 9-1 spurt with Wilson making two layups and Tyasha Harris three free throws.
Cierra Dillard had 29 points, six assists, and six steals for Buffalo (29-6). The transfer from the University of Massachusetts left the game for the first and only time to a standing ovation with 41 seconds left. The Bulls out of the Mid-American Conference had knocked off South Florida and Florida State in Tallahassee to reach their first Sweet 16.