Just showing up for the games this season was not enough. The UConn women’s basketball team was not viewed as the same invincible machine it had been over the past two seasons.
The top-ranked Huskies still featured Maya Moore, the top player in the nation. Yet, they also featured four freshmen and a sophomore. Roles had to be defined. Confidence had to be gained.
In the end, this blue-collar team found what it was looking for in one another and in the season. UConn has once again navigated its way to the grand stage. Moore had 28 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven steals Tuesday to lead the Huskies to their fourth straight trip to the Final Four with a 75-40 win over No. 6 Duke in the NCAA Philadelphia regional final before 4,319 at the Liacouras Center.
“It’s really special,’’ Moore said. “This is sometimes the toughest game to play just to get into the Final Four. And the way that we came out, the way that we all played together, kept our cool and everybody playing well. I couldn’t have asked for more. And this is exactly where we’ve prepared ourselves to be.’’
It is UConn’s 12th Final Four appearance overall and its 11th since 1994-95.
Moore, who recorded her third straight double-double, was named the regional Most Outstanding Player for the fourth straight season. She also became the seventh player in Division I history to reach 3,000 points (3,000).
The Huskies (36-1) have advanced to the Final Four in four straight seasons for the second time in history.
“I think this is one of the best ones we’ve had so far in terms of it being the hardest,’’ junior Tiffany Hayes said. “It’s just good to see Lorin (Dixon) and Maya be able to get to their fourth straight one. And hopefully we can get there and get the job done.’’
UConn will meet No. 9 Notre Dame (30-7) in the national semifinals Sunday at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (9 p.m.). The Huskies have defeated Notre Dame three times this season, including a 73-64 win in the Big East tournament final March 8 at the XL Center.
“Contrary to what people think, I have a very stable view of myself and my team, and we’re very realistic,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “But one thing is the absolute truth. There’s only one team playing right now that knows how to win a national championship. So when things have to get done, they know how to get them done.’’
With the UConn men heading to Houston, it is the ninth time in NCAA history that a school has sent both teams to the Final Four in the same season. The Huskies won dual national championships in 2004.
Bria Hartley added 14 points, six rebounds and six assists for UConn. Stefanie Dolson had 12 points and six rebounds. Hayes had 11 points and five assists.
Hartley and Dixon were named to the all-regional team. Jasmine Thomas and Karima Christmas of Duke were also honored.
The Huskies shot 59.3 percent from the field as Moore and Lorin Dixon joined Diana Taurasi, Maria Conlon and Morgan Valley as the only four-year players at UConn to go to the Final Four four times in their career.
“I feel blessed to have such great teammates around me, a coaching staff that is so experienced and knows exactly how to prepare us for each section of the season,’’ Moore said. “This one is I think the sweetest just because it’s been the most challenging and a lot more doubts in the air.’’
Thomas led Duke with 17 points (7-of-22 FG), six rebounds, four assists and three steals. The Blue Devils (32-4) shot 25.4 percent from the field.
Duke actually provide some resistance at points during the first half. The Blue Devils trailed 23-20 with 3:39 left in the half.
But the Huskies generated a 7-0 run to open a 10-point lead at halftime. Moore capped the run with a baseline jumper at the buzzer.
Moore followed by scoring eight points in the first 5:40 of the second half as UConn used a 22-3 run to open a 52-23 lead with 10:35 left.
The Blue Devils went without a field goal for 8:15.
“All year has been a struggle, but our team just came together,’’ Dolson said. “And to be here in the tournament and make it this far to the Final Four, it just feels amazing. You can’t describe how great you felt and realizing in the last minute we were going to win. We were going to the Final Four.’’