Seniors Chong, Lawlor play last home game at Gampel as UConn women's basketball continues title run in Bridgeport

STORRS — Saniya Chong had taken her seat on the UConn women’s basketball team bench but was ready to jump out of it.

Chong’s senior classmate, Tierney Lawlor, appeared to have an opening for a 3-point shot as time wound down on the top-seeded Huskies’ 94-64 rout of No. 8 Syracuse in a NCAA Tournament second-round game at Gampel Pavilion. But the Ansonia native, who is 0-for-8 from the floor this season, passed it up.

“I wanted to run out there and scream in T’s face, ‘Why didn’t you shoot that?’ ” Chong said with a smile.
“It wasn’t there. I didn’t think I had it,” Lawlor explained.

But the seniors aren’t done in Connecticut, at least. UConn (34-0) will take on No. 4 UCLA in a regional semifinal game Saturday at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena.

“It’s sad that it’s their last game at Gampel but we sent them out on a good note,” UConn forward Napheesa Collier said.

Chong and Lawlor became the second class in UConn history to go four years without losing a home game, finishing 62-0, with the first being the Class of 2011 of Maya Moore and Lorin Dixon.

They are also 150-1 since their arrival here, tying the Moore/Dixon class for second in wins in NCAA history. UConn’s Class of 2016 — Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck — won 151 games. The Class of 2017 will be the leader in winning percentage regardless of what happens to the Huskies the rest of the way.

“To be mentioned with Maya Moore in anything is amazing,” Chong said. “I’m just happy to be here and to be part of the history we’re making doing something that I love.”

Chong did not score Monday night but had seven assists in 31 minutes. Lawlor did record her third steal of the season.

While the Ossining, New York native admitted to being emotional leaving the court for the final time, Lawlor was stoic.

“I was excited, we won, and it was a great team effort,” she said. “I’ll miss it. But I’m not an emotional person.”

Chong will receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology in May, while Lawlor’s degree will be in her personalized major of sustainable farm and ranch management.

While they have a lot to look forward to, they took a moment to look back.

“I’m happy. I’m happy that I made this choice,” Chong said. “These four years have gone by so fast but I’m happy with the memories that I have and the friends I’ve made. I’ve grown up a lot these past four years. Without the help of my coaches and teammates, I don’t know where I’d be.”

“It’s been great and a lot of fun,” Lawlor said. “I’ve met a lot of great people. Working with Saniya these past four years, living with her, hanging out, has been great. My teammates are great and I am so grateful for the experiences that I’ve had.”

Showing respect
Syracuse seniors Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes were the last two players in the postgame handshake line. As the UConn coaches and players made their way through, Geno Auriemma and his staff and several players gave the Syracuse standouts hugs
“They played their butts off,” Collier said. “We were saying, from one player to the other, ‘Good game.’ ”
Peterson, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, had 25 points Monday night while Sykes added 15.
“Players that come in and play that way save your program and they elevated ours to another level,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said.

The Orange have made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Last year they got past the second round for the first time and reached the final before losing to UConn in Indianapolis.

“What they did should not go unnoticed and that’s what our coaches wanted to emphasize,” UConn forward Gabby Williams said. “What they did at Syracuse is incredible. They’ve played their butts off and you have to admire that.”

On the attack
Katie Lou Samuelson hit the floor going for the ball after the opening tip and got up holding her neck. Later, she could have used some ice bags after taking a few hits to the face on drives to the basket.
“I was a little worried I’d get some bruises,” Samuelson said. “The time I got hit in the nose I was waiting for it to start bleeding. And starting off the game it was my neck. It was just a tough game and we respect how physical they play. It was all on the court and nothing personal.”

Samuelson set career highs in free throws made (11) and attempted (13) in scoring 23 points Monday night.

“We’re both aggressive teams,” Samuelson said. “Their defense, they put it all on the line and sometimes things might get chippy or rough. But you’re right there to pick that player up. You know it’s just in the game.”

The sophomore guard missed last year’s NCAA final after breaking her left foot against Oregon State two days earlier so she was excited to get a shot at the Orange.

“It was a little extra motivation for me,” Samuelson said. “Our whole team was ready to go and we knew from last year that we had to be. We knew we had to come out strong.”

Husky bites
UConn has won 35 straight games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents … The Huskies are 3-0 against UCLA all time with the last meeting an 86-50 win at Mohegan Sun Arena on Dec. 21, 2014. The Bruins will host UConn at Pauley Pavilion next season … The Pac-12 has the most representatives in the Sweet 16 (5) while the ACC has three and the SEC, Big 12, and Big 10 two each … Samuelson and Williams each have 1,117 career points after each scored 23 Monday.


Nurse (29 Points) Leads UConn To 94-64 Rout Of Syracuse As Streak Runs To 109

One deep shot after another settled into the net and Kia Nurse could not contain herself.

She pumped a fist.She raised her arms. She unleashed a primal scream that pierced the sound of a screaming crowd at Gampel Pavilion.

And throughout, she grinned. As the UConn junior guard was propelling her team to a cozy lead over Syracuse Monday night, she was playing with unbridled joy.

When she converted her ninth three-pointer — a bank shot from the left side — Nurse ran back on defense with her arms flopping, almost mimicking wings. It made no sense. None of it made sense.

"It was just like, 'Are you kidding me? It's one of those days,'" Nurse said after UConn's 94-64 win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. "I'll take it. But are you kidding me?"

We kid you not: Nurse, the kid who insists she's not a shooter, tied an NCAA Tournament record with nine three-pointers. She scored 29 points, 26 in the first half when UConn sprinted to a 28-point lead and left the No. 8 seed Orange gasping for life.

Syracuse has the highest-scoring backcourt in America. The talented duo, Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes, have talked of being the nation's best backcourt and their school has promoted them as such.

But as a raucous crowd at Gampel witnessed, neither was the best guard on the floor Monday. Nurse made 10 of 13 shots including 9 of 12 three-pointers. As she made shot after shot and helped contain the ballyhooed Syracuse guards, she was indispensable.

Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson added 23 points each as the Huskies were nearly flawless for three quarters. They left their campus arena with a ticket to their 24th consecutive Sweet 16 and will journey across the state to Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena for the regional semifinals Saturday.

The Huskies, winners of 109 consecutive games, are bidding for their 12th NCAA title and fifth in a row. If they stage more shows like Monday's game, another parade is in their future.

"Those first three quarters … we were about as good as we can be in a lot of the areas, in a lot of the areas that you need to be good in this time of year," coach Geno Auriemma said.

UConn shot 63.3 percent (33-for-53). They contested shots on defense and moved the ball on offense, finding open shots.

Nurse was often left to roam the perimeter. As the third quarter came to an end, she was set to shoot a three-pointer from in front of the UConn bench.

Instead, she tossed a pass to Napheesa Collier in the paint. Collier (17 points) dropped a layup and the buzzer sounded, ending the quarter with UConn leading ,86-51.

It was textbook UConn basketball — unselfish and sound, finding the open teammate for a high-percentage shot. It was also UConn's 30th assist on its 31st basket.

Auriemma raised his fists and dropped his head after the basket. "They had me shaking my head a couple times," he said.

Nurse has been part of the past two titles as a starter. As UConn's most seasoned player entering the season, she figured to play a prominent role for a young team.

After struggling early in the season, she steadily evolved into a reliable player and rarely the team's go-to score.

Yet as the games become more meaningful, Nurse is emerging as a force.

Coming back from an ankle injury that sidelined her for four games to end the regular season, Nurse is finding her offensive game. She had 24 points and was 6-for-7 on three-pointers in a win against Albany in the first round.

Against Syracuse, Nurse was unstoppable.

Meanwhile, Peterson (25 points) and Sykes (15) were unable to keep their team in the game. The challenge of going toe-to-toe with the Orange backcourt seemed to fuel the Huskies.

"It allows you to play with a bit of a chip on your shoulder," Nurse said. "And at the same time, for us, we like to prove it with the way that we play. Today, it wasn't a one-person show where one person had to shut down Peterson or Sykes. It was a team defensive effort."

Nurse's ninth three-pointer came in the third quarter and tied an NCAA Tournament record for three-pointers in a game, matching Purdue's Courtney Moses (2012). It came on a bank shot, and her reaction was memorable.

When Samuelson hit 10 three-pointers in 10 attempts in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game two weeks ago, she followed one of her baskets with a shrug reminiscent of Michael Jordan's two-handed shrug in 1992. Samuelson's reaction became an internet meme.

Nurse's post-shot reaction? She described it as the Canadian version of Samuelson's shrug.

What did Auriemma love most about Nurse's performance? Like her teammates, she was so good in all facets. Williams, the team's post player, helped bring the ball up court. Samuelson, Collier and Saniya Chong (seven assists) moved the ball all over the court. Crystal Dangerfield had five assists in 23 minutes off the bench.

And Nurse had six assists while playing with energy on defense.

"People think when you shoot the ball well, you play well," Auriemma said. "And Kia shot the ball better than well. She shot it amazingly well. But she played really well, and that's even more important."

Why UConn coach Geno Auriemma's 2016 women's Final Four presser is getting attention

At a press conference during 2016's women's Final Four, UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma was kind enough to give the world a glimpse into one of the most important tenets of his coaching philosophy.

The coach for UConn's women's team — which has won 109 straight games now — currently has his Huskies in the third round of the NCAA tournament and looking for a fifth straight national title. You could say he knows a thing or two about how to coach.

And in a timeless quote from last year's tournament that's resurfacing again a year later, Auriemma took a moment to share some of the wisdom he's picked up along the way.

Auriemma's gripe? Players have been bred to care more about how they look and how many points they score than their overall team's success. If a player is upset because they're not scoring enough, or if a player on the bench is not invested in her teammates' performance, she won't ever see the floor themselves, the coach said.

"We put a huge premium on body language," Auriemma said. "And if your body language is bad, you will never get in the game. Ever. I don't care how good you are."

That's something players at every level should take note of, especially given who said it.

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