PHILADELPHIA -- Connecticut took a different path last night, but got by Penn State just as easily as four months ago. And now only Tennessee stands between the top-ranked Huskies (35-1) and a national championship.
Instead of outscoring the Nittany Lions 19-4 to start the game -- as was the case in an 87-74 win on Dec. 5 -- the Huskies waited a bit to establish a superiority they maintained throughout their 89-67 national semifinal victory last night.
Connecticut wasn't dominant against Penn State (30-5), for which a triumph seemed plausible until the final 10 minutes, according to a scoreboard that showed a four-point margin.
But the tug-of-war was one you knew the Huskies would win, and they did, going on a 20-6 run midway in the second half to move into tomorrow night's dream matchup with the Lady Vols.
"If you'd asked anyone, they would have predicted that Connecticut and Tennessee would have met in the final game," Huskies guard Shea Ralph said of the showdown, a sequel to the 1995 final won by Connecticut.
Sue Bird had 19 points, including five three-pointers, and five assists, Svetlana Abrosimova had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Asjha Jones had 16 points and seven rebounds off the bench. As a team, Connecticut shot 64 percent from the field in the second half and out-rebounded Penn State 42-30 as former Huskies stars Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters and Jennifer Rizzotti watched from the stands.
Connecticut's success inside ran counter to what Penn State hoped, which was that its big players would rule the day against a seemingly fleet group that was scoring nearly 100 points per game in the tournament.
Instead, the Huskies' big players (Swin Cash, Kelly Schumacher, Tamika Williams and Jones) outscored those of the Nittany Lions, 41-36, as well as out-rebounding them.
"I thought the team that did the best job of controlling the boards would have the best chance to win," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Asjha Jones and Kelly Schumacher were just phenomenal; every rebound came at a crucial time."
After five minutes of jittery, but even basketball, Connecticut pulled away with a 10-2 run, sparked by a pair of three-pointers by Bird, whose bomb with 12: 45 left in the half gave Connecticut an 18-10 lead. Another long-range shot put the team ahead 25-17, at the 8: 48 mark.
But Penn State got help from sophomore reserves Rashana Barnes and Katrena Carr in working its way back into the game, the pair combining for 11 points during a seven-minute period wherein the Nittany Lions prevented the Huskies from running away. Barnes' jumper narrowed the Penn State deficit to 27-23 with 5: 51 remaining.
With Connecticut not shooting particularly well, however, Penn State couldn't take advantage. The Nittany Lions went scoreless on seven of their next eight possessions and went into the locker room trailing 37-28.
Andrea Garner and Maren Walseth, who had combined for 42 points in the earlier meeting against Connecticut, were of little consequence in the first 20 minutes, but emerged as larger factors after the break, as did Lisa Shepherd.
Shepherd, who was averaging 16 points in tournament play before last night, scored half of Penn State's first 12 points of the second half, her three-pointer with 17: 26 left cutting the UConn lead to 41-37.
Garner (19 points overall) and Walseth combined for 15 points over the first 10 minutes of the second half, including Walseth's three-point play that made the score 57-53 Connecticut with 10: 58 remaining.
"There was a hard-fought game for approximately 30 minutes," Penn State coach Rene Portland said. "In the last seven minutes, they really just pulled away, for whatever reason."
UConn scored eight of the next 10 points, getting five of them from Cash. Then she broke down Barnes in the open court for a 69-57 lead, and UConn got a putback basket from Williams, two free throws from Ralph and a steal and layup by Kennitra Johnson to blow it open, 75-59, with 4: 29 left.
Williams scored inside to make the run 20-6 and give the Huskies a 77-59 lead. Shepherd finally ended it with a jumper, but it was much too late.
"We've always said when someone punches us, we have to punch back and I thought we did a wonderful job of that," Ralph said, crediting Bird. "Sue Bird headed it up; it seemed like every time they came up, she came down and made a shot."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.