BRIDGEPORT, Conn. >> Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies have been on an unprecedented Final Four run, making it there 10 straight years.
This trip might have been the least expected of them.
With a trio of All-Americans lost to graduation, Auriemma had questions about his inexperienced group of Huskies. They answered every single one of them.
“They’ve owned the whole month of March, they weren’t just along for the ride,” Auriemma said. “It’s theirs and that’s a huge step. That’s a big step, to go from riding in the backseat on a trip you’re going to, to all of a sudden, you’re in charge of driving the bus, you’re responsible for getting us there.”
Next up for the Huskies, who have won 111 consecutive games, is Mississippi State on Friday night in Dallas. Stanford will face South Carolina in the other national semifinal, giving the Southeastern Conference two teams in the Final Four for the first time since 2008.
That was the last season the conference won a championship. The Bulldogs are playing in their first Final Four after beating Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional.
The Huskies routed Mississippi State by 60 points last season in the Sweet 16, but Auriemma was impressed with what he saw in the Bulldogs win over Baylor.
“That’s not the same Mississippi State team we played last year here,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “That’s a whole different team. A lot of the same players, but that’s a whole different team.”
While the Bulldogs lack Final Four experience, they are led by a talented group of upperclassmen.
“For our seniors, they believed in a vision when it wasn’t real easy to believe. I’m really happy for them,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer. “I know how hard they’ve worked. I know the blood, sweat and tears, the commitment they’ve put into this.”
The Cardinal and coach Tara VanDerveer return to the national semifinals after a two-year hiatus. They too were perennial participants, making it there in six of seven seasons from 2008-2014.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be back, and we’re ready to play,” Stanford senior Karlie Samuelson said.
If Stanford and UConn can win on Friday, it would create a matchup of the Samuelson sisters, with Katie Lou playing for the Huskies.
“I can’t imagine anyone has ever done this before on separate teams,” Katie Lou Samuelson said. “I think it was just meant to be that we would go to different places, so this would happen.”
South Carolina rebounded after a disappointing exit from the NCAA Tournament last season to reach the Final Four for the second time in three years. The Gamecocks lost a heartbreaking game to Notre Dame in 2015, falling by one point to the Irish.
After surviving a second-round scare against Arizona State, the Gamecocks reached the Final Four with victories over Quinnipiac and Florida State. Dawn Staley’s team has had to re-invent itself after losing senior center Alaina Coates to an ankle injury in the SEC Tournament.
The Gamecocks joined their men’s program in the Final Four, becoming the 13th school to have both teams reach the national semifinals in the same season. Only UConn has won both titles in the same season, last doing it in 2014.
“We’d also like to congratulate our men’s basketball team, because we’re coming to join you,” Staley said after beating Florida State.
The Gamecocks will fly straight to Dallas from Stockton, Calif., because the NCAA decided this year to move the Final Four back to a Friday-Sunday format for the first time since 2002 to try bolster attendance. There were only a handful of tickets left for the championship game as of Monday night.