Albany, N.Y. – Junior Crystal Dangerfield hoisted Connecticut onto her back with an 11-point outburst in the fourth quarter to lead the charge in defeating UCLA, 69-61, in a stirring, physical contest in the first game of the Albany regional Friday.
In a game that was billed as a contest of the Huskies’ scoring power against the Bruin’s rebounding, the game actually played out as a defensive showcase for both teams.
Napheesa Collier led Connecticut with 25 points and 10 rebounds. After shooting 0-6 in the first half, Dangerfield’s scored 15 points in the second half, with 13 of them in the last 13 minutes.
Japreece Dean led UCLA with 16 points, while Kennedy Burke tallied 14 points and 10 rebounds. Michaela Onyenwere grabbed fifteen rebounds – eight of them offensive.
The Bruins more than held their own by playing smothering defense, controlling the pace of the game and forcing the Huskies to play the game largely in the half court. They took their first lead since the opening minutes by connecting of five of eight threes in the third period. UCLA led by as many as five before an exchange of buckets closed the third period, giving them a one-point lead.
Connecticut opened the final period with a full court trap that disrupted the Bruin offense, and Dangerfield did the rest. UCLA managed just three field goals in the final quarter, but kept the game in play by drawing fouls and hitting free throws. But in the end, it was just not enough.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose squad will take on the Huskies Monday for a Final Four spot, was watching the game, and praised Dangerfield’s effort.
“What Crystal did there in that fourth quarter was pretty darned impressive,” he said. “She threw them on their back and said, ‘Come on, people, let’s go.'”
“I think it was either a 7-0 or 9-0 run that she had herself, and they were not easy shots. That one three she hit off that screen was from about 24 or 25 feet and then the step-back she hits driving on the left baseline were difficult shots.”
UCLA oach Cori Close conceded that Connecticut’s press forced her team to change their game, and was a major factor in the 20-11 fourth quarter.
“[T]he press, it really put us in a more standstill, one pass, make a read, and there was not a lot of rhythm,” she said.
“What you saw in their offense was a lot of rhythm, was a lot of fluidity, and when they did their press and we sort of got on our heels, we didn’t ever get our rhythm back and getting players shots in rhythm. Credit their defense; they really stepped up and made what we wanted to run hard.”
Both teams thrive on a running and the tempo of the game was frenetic from the tip-off. The Bruins scored first, a three-pointer off the third offensive rebound of the possession. They led by five when Connecticut went on a 15-4 run mid-way through the first quarter, including consecutive fast-breaks where a Husky got behind the UCLA defense.
Connecticut held its own on the boards through the period, and shot over 50 percent to their opponent’s 27 percent. Collier scored 10 of the Huskies’ first 12 points before others began to contribute.
The Bruins tightened their defense in the second period, and the referees were allowing significant contact. Their smothering defense forced Connecticut to work harder for open shots, and they gave up few second-chance opportunities. The Huskies were held scoreless for the final 5:15 of the quarter, as UCLA cut the lead from 12 to five.
Though the Bruins shot just 26 percent to their opponent’s 41 percent for the half, they had six more possessions and closed the score to 31-26 going into the locker room. Christyn Williams and Collier had 12 points each for Connecticut, but Collier was limited to just two in the second quarter. Seven UCLA players spread the scoring, led by Japreese Dean’s seven.
The third quarter began with good defense and little scoring. After two Husky fast break buckets, they missed several three’s, and the Bruins capitalized on each one and cut their deficit to one point.
Coming out of that timeout, Connecticut went back inside to Collier, and she drew an and-one, but missed her third free-throw of the game. Following an exchange of turnovers, Lajahna Drummer hit UCLA’s fourth three of the quarter to tie the game at 39.
An exchange of buckets gave the Bruins a 46-41 lead. The Huskies managed to get the ball inside several times, and drew some fouls. The free throws closed the gap to just one point as the quarter ended, with UCLA in front 50-49.
Connecticut opened the final period with a full court trap that clearly disrupted the Bruins. But Husky coach Geno Auriemma thought the Bruins actually had seriously disrupted the flow of Connecticut’s offense.
“ They’re making it really difficult for us to get any separation from them, every time we screen,” he told ESPN’s Holly Rwoe after the third quarter.
“It’s a really physical game, and we’re getting out-physicalled right now, so we’re going to have to try to isolate our guys one-on-one. Trying to play four on four or five one five, they’re just too big and too athletic. So we’re going to have to find those isolations.”
Dangerfield took that advice to heart, and her personal offensive explosion in the fourth quarter was about taking control one-on-one. The change in defense and the change in Dangerfield saved Connecticut’s season and sent them to their 14th straight Elite 8.
Husky standout Katie Lou Samuelson was clearly still in pain from a back injury sustained at the end of the regular season. Auriemma tacitly conceded her limitations by saying his team played with “four and a half players.” Samuelson played all 40 minutes, but had just one field goal – a breakaway layup following a steal.
No. 2 Connecticut will square off against No. 1 Louisville Sunday at noon. Louisville beat Connecticut at home in January by nine points.