What’s basketball without hope the stars might align to make it possible for the virtually improbable to occur?
They did in Oklahoma City Sunday night when Louisville, almost a 30-point underdog, dethroned defending national champion Baylor with 40 minutes of force and focused shooting.
On Monday, Kentucky likely hoped to wish upon the same constellation against UConn in the Bridgeport Regional final at the Webster Bank Arena.
And the stars did come out. Just not for the Wildcats.
Behind freshman Breanna Stewart, who scored 21 points, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who added 17, the Huskies rolled easily into a record sixth straight Final Four with a resounding 83-53 win over the Wildcats.
The Huskies (33-4) also had 12 points Kelly Faris. Moriah Jefferson and Bria Hartley scored 10 each for the Huskies, who will be playing in their 14th Final Four since 1991.
This was the second straight year UConn ended Kentucky’s Final Four dream in the Elite Eight. Last year it was in Kingston, R.I. This time it came before a boisterous sellout about 90 miles south from UConn’s campus.
A’dia Mathies ended her college career by leading Kentucky (30-6) with 14 points
And now, on Sunday, the Huskies pursuit of an eighth national championship continues in the national semifinals against either Notre Dame or Duke, who play Tuesday in the Elite Eight.
UConn beat Duke by 30 on Jan. 21 at Gampel Pavilion. Notre Dame, well, you’ve likely seen that movie by now. UConn has lost seven of eight against the Irish, including all three games this season and the last two national semifinal games.
But that’s an issue for another day, one that would have no immediate relevance had the Huskies not played with so much flair Monday.
It was easy to tell when the character of this game changed. It was right after Kentucky scored to give it a 23-22 lead with 9:07 to play in the first half.
To put it in a way Kentucky can relate: It was “30 Minutes of Dread” – a slight variation its team slogan of “40 Minutes of Dread.”
That basket was the culmination of entertaining and athletic opening act that began with Jennifer O’Neill’s opening three to give Kentucky a 3-0 lead. The Wildcats were in it to win it.
From there on it was 10 minutes of terror for them, suddenly consumed by wave after wave of pressure. They simply could not contain or abate what came after them. After it didn’t relent until UConn was ready to stop it.
The Huskies scored the next 17 points over 6:42 to springboard to New Orleans. By the time Jelleah Sidney ended the drought with her three-pointer with 2:25 to play, the thoroughbred, as they say in Lexington, was out of the barn.
Stewart, the high school player of the year, continued her remarkable renaissance dating to the start of the Big East tournament nearly a month ago. Not only did she score 13 points in the first half, but she was a presence on defense, her long arms and NBA reach producing two emphatic blocked shots.
Stewart’s effort was needed because it was clear that Stefanie Dolson, it pillar post, was having trouble moving because of her stress fracture and plantar fasciitis.
But Dolson pushed through, playing a team-high 17 minutes in the first half when she grabbed seven rebounds.
What she couldn’t do was compensated for by Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored eight of UConn’s first 14 points.
Faris added eight more and freshman Moriah Jefferson, her confidence soaring by the possession, brought her dimension of warp speed to UConn’s transition game, even after taking a nasty spill in the Kentucky band late in the second half.
And UConn’s pressure persisted into the second half, almost as if to prove a point to whomever may be waiting for them in New Orleans.
With 11:15 to play, its lead was 61-35, meaning the Huskies run had swelled to 39-12 from the time it last trailed.