ALBANY — In the moments after Connecticut advanced to the Final Four on Sunday for the 12th year in a row, blue, yellow and orange confetti rode the waves of Coach Geno Auriemma’s undulating hair. The pieces dusted the shoulders of his blue suit jacket and hid inside the top of his unbuttoned shirt.
For Auriemma, the caretaker of the most dominant women’s basketball program in history, this could get old. In some years, it has. In those years, the 65-year-old Auriemma would like to point out, people seemed to forget how hard it can be to march through an N.C.A.A. tournament. UConn’s invincibility was perceived to be as simple as an uncontested layup. Perfection was expected.
This is not one of those years, at least by UConn’s preposterously high standards. For Auriemma, then, the celebration that followed Sunday’s 80-73 victory over No. 1-seeded Louisville in the Albany Region final — the confetti, the long embraces, the snips of the net — brought about a joy that even his usual sarcasm could not suppress.
With wins by Oregon and Connecticut on Sunday, half of the women’s Final Four field is set. The Ducks will face the winner of Monday’s game between Baylor and Iowa, while the Huskies will meet the winner of the game between Notre Dame and Stanford.
“We’ve been to a bunch of Final Fours in a row, and if you had seen this team the moment the buzzer sounded, you would think this is the very first time UConn has went to the Final Four,” Auriemma told the crowd just before the region’s all-tournament team was announced. “And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.”
The Huskies (35-2) are headed to a record 12th consecutive Final Four and shooting for their 12th national championship.
“I don’t think people understand the pressures that go with playing at UConn, that the expectations are so unrealistic, and at the same time, very realistic, because we keep delivering on them,” Auriemma said.
His star senior Katie Lou Samuelson, still recovering from a back injury, led the Huskies this time, shaking off a lackluster performance in the regional semifinal to score 29 points against Louisville. In advancing, the Huskies avenged a regular-season loss to the Cardinals. “Coming into this game, we all felt like there was a little bit of unfinished business from the last game,” Samuelson said. “There was a little bit of extra motivation.”
It didn’t come easy. Every time the second-seeded Huskies stretched their lead to double digits, Louisville fought back. With 1 minute 47 seconds remaining and UConn holding an 11-point lead, the Cardinals cut the deficit to a single basket — at 75-73 — with 26.6 seconds left.
“We refused to quit,” Louisville Coach Jeff Walz said.
But in the dying seconds, the Cardinals’ own star, Asia Durr, missed two free throws, and Louisville’s chance at a comeback slipped away.
Louisville (32-4) entered the game suffused with the confidence earned by defeating the Huskies in January, but beating UConn twice in a season doesn’t happen very often. The last team to do that was Notre Dame, in 2013. The Huskies could face the Irish in the Final Four next weekend in Tampa, Fla., if Notre Dame beats Stanford in the Chicago Regional final on Monday night.
In the locker room after the victory, Auriemma said he told his players that they reminded him of his first Final Four team in 1991. “They all looked at each other, and none of them had been born, obviously,” Auriemma said. The other time Auriemma experienced such unadulterated joy, he said, was in 1995, when the program won its first national title.
“I’m glad that at my age I’m getting to experience this because I don’t ever want it to become — you know how the world is — ‘What did you do today?’ ‘We’re going to the Final Four.’ ‘Good job, man,’” Auriemma said, fist-bumping the tournament official sitting next to him at the postgame news conference.
“It’s still got to mean a lot,” he said, “and you still have to feel it in your soul.”
UConn listened to all the talk about the increased parity in women’s college basketball this season and seemed to feed on the supposed postseason slights: the star player Napheesa Collier’s being excluded from the list of finalists for the Naismith Trophy, awarded annually to the country’s best player; the Huskies’ receiving a No. 2 seed for the first time since 2006. But methodically, and at times with difficulty, they continued to advance.
“I have felt everything about this team all year long,” Auriemma said. “I’ve loved them. I’ve hated them. I wanted the season to end. I wanted the season to keep going. I wanted 10 guys to transfer. I only wanted to coach one guy. I wanted to have them over for dinner every night. I wanted to — I wish they’d never eat again the rest of their lives.
“Every single emotion, every single thought you could ever imagine was in my brain all year long, to a point where — you know, I can’t even — I don’t have any more brain space.”
With that, Auriemma stood up from his chair and headed to the locker room. He was off to celebrate another victory with another group of players, another trip to a familiar place — his 20th Final Four — as if it were the very first time.
OREGON 88, MISS. STATE 84 Thanks to another stellar performance from Sabrina Ionescu and a lift from a home-state crowd, Oregon is heading to its first women’s Final Four. Ionescu had 31 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds, and the second-seeded Ducks beat No. 1 seed Mississippi State in Portland, Ore.
Satou Sabally had 22 points and 7 rebounds for the Ducks (33-4).
At the final buzzer, Ionescu jumped into her teammate Ruthy Hebard’s arms, and Coach Kelly Graves flashed an “O” with his hands to the crowd. The Ducks had been eliminated in the round of 8 the past two seasons.
Teaira McCowan had 19 points and 15 rebounds in her final game for the Bulldogs (33-3), who had played in the N.C.A.A. title game for the past two seasons. Two of Mississippi State’s losses this season were to Oregon — the first one a true road game. (AP)