BRIDGEPORT — Saturday's Sweet 16 game was expected to be the Bridgeport Regional's restaging of a winter battle between Eastern foes, only this time along the cusp of Long Island Sound on a warm, spring day.
"We were talking about how physical the game was going to be," coach Geno Auriemma said.
And, frankly, there were moments when push and shove led to hack and grimace, just like the last time UConn and Maryland played in Hartford in December.
But UConn's 76-50 win over Maryland wasn't really what some suspected it might be at the Webster Bank Arena.
It was tough, but nothing that would have assaulted the senses. This was more of a celebration of UConn's youth. And of UConn's defense, which limited the Terps (26-8) to 19 of 61 from the field.
UConn's kids, particularly its three freshmen, controlled the tempo and the temperament, running, defending and scoring. In essence, doing things athletes at this level can do.
"I said before the game that Connecticut makes teams look bad and you saw that on display," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "They had firepower and open looks late in the shot clock. We struggled against their defense. They made it difficult."
Apparently, the Huskies have rediscovered who they are and what they were born to do in the first three games of the tournament.
"Our freshmen were great today," Auriemma said. "That was the story."
Led by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored 17 points with seven rebounds, and Breanna Stewart, who added 17 points, eight rebounds and four blocks, the Huskies (32-4) easily took care of the Terrapins.
Alyssa Thomas led Maryland with 13 points. But unlike the last time they played, a 63-48 loss, the Terps lost the rebounding battle (41-36), were outscored in the paint (40-18) and outscored off the bench (25-0).
And now the Huskies are just one win away from a record sixth-straight Final Four, three wins from an eighth national championship.
The skate to eight continues Monday against a familiar Elite Eight foe — Kentucky. Last season, the Huskies beat them in Kingston, R.I., to get to Denver. This year the goal is New Orleans.
"It's the best game of the year," Auriemma said. "It's just one game and everything that a player dreams of, going to the Final Four, on the line."
Freshman Moriah Jefferson (10 points) was also on top of her game, her defense and ball-handling providing many of the day's happy gasps from UConn fans. And Morgan Tuck added eight points.
"If can continue to play like this, it can do nothing but help us to increase our level of confidence," Stewart said.
There was this one moment that put the physicality of the afternoon into perspective.
With 7.5 seconds to play in the first half, Kelly Faris was hammered along the right baseline by a Maryland player. You could almost hear her bones cracking as she was falling to the floor. There was no foul call.
This did not make Auriemma happy. First, he charged to his left in search of an official, his arms waving, his face contorting.
"He was sticking up for us," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "We were getting banged up out there and just wanted to make sure the refs were doing their jobs."
But Auriemma did not get far because right behind him, clickety-clacking along on her high heels, was Chris Dailey, his trusted associate coach and part-time body guard.
Dailey caught up with Auriemma and turned him around.
But instead of calming down, he charged after another official who accommodated his desire to be called for a technical.
"I'm 59 years old and there I was acting like I was 12," Auriemma said. "It wasn't very smart of me. I'm just as stupid as I was when I was 29."
The Huskies were leading 14-13 in the first half before they suddenly pulled out of traffic with a flurry of points that left them ahead, 33-20.
For all the cries for whistles, there were few in the game. Free throws were at a premium, the teams combined for just 16 shots, and so the game was won the way it was designed — with effort and execution.
With both Stefanie Dolson (stress fracture) and Mosqueda-Lewis hobbling at times after taking a nasty fall, UConn still managed to outrun the undermanned Terps, whittled down to seven players by injuries.
That last UConn-Maryland game was Maryland's first game after losing point guard Laurin Mincy to a knee injury, and the Terps' backcourt was a mess. They turned the ball over 26 times to completely offset the control they were having on the boards.
More to the point, Thomas was hounded defensively, primarily by Faris, and held to six points and just 2 of 12 from the field.
This time, the Terps had just 16 turnovers. But Thomas, shooting 4 of 16, scored five of her points from the free-throw line.
"It went the same way," Thomas said. "They were very physical. Every shot was contested."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun