FRESNO, Calif. -- Sylvia Fowles climbed up the ladder and made the final cut before waving the net in celebration.
Her team in turmoil coming into the NCAA Tournament, Fowles has LSU right back where the Lady Tigers expected to be before their coach's sudden resignation: a fourth straight Final Four appearance.
Fowles overpowered Connecticut with 23 points, 15 rebounds and an intimidating defensive performance that led third-seeded LSU to a 73-50 victory over the top-seeded Huskies on Monday night in the Fresno Regional final.
"Every time I go to sleep I dream about cutting down the net
and having it around my neck," Fowles said. "Tonight, that all
The Lady Tigers (30-7) did much more than that, handing Connecticut its most lopsided tournament loss in 15 years and making the Huskies (32-4) look nothing like the program that dominated college basketball just a few years ago.
It's been an emotional month for the LSU players, who had to deal with the aftermath of coach Pokey Chatman's resignation March 7 amid allegations of improper conduct with a former player.
"I don't think a lot of people thought that we would be where
we're going to be," acting coach Bob Starkey said. "We handled
Starkey, a longtime assistant for both the men's and women's programs at LSU, stepped in admirably. He has an undefeated record as a head coach and looks to end his career that way with two more wins next week in Cleveland. Starkey said he has no aspirations to become the full-time coach.
LSU will play Rutgers on Sunday, looking to advance to the championship after falling short in the semifinals the previous three years. LSU joins UConn, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech as the
only school to make four straight Final Fours.
"This is more special," Fowles said. "It's more special
because our team really came together. We're playing our best
basketball and we feel good about ourselves."
Connecticut will be left watching the Final Four for the third straight year after making it that far the previous five seasons. This matches UConn's longest Final Four drought since making its first in 1991.
The Huskies, who won 72-71 at LSU last month, had no answers for Fowles, who dominated the game right from the start.
"It's really hard when you have such a dominant post player,"
UConn guard Renee Montgomery said. "She's so athletic. She can
jump really high so they just throw the ball up in the air and have
her go get it."
With long arms, quick feet, and a 6-foot-6 frame, Fowles is an intimidating presence in the middle of the defense. She blocked six shots, altered many others, had three steals, deflected passes and forced the Huskies into bad shots and turnovers.
The two players Fowles guarded most often -- Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren -- each went 0-for-5 from the field. UConn shot just 33 percent overall.
"I had a little swagger under my belt tonight," Fowles said.
"I wanted to prove a point that we can hang with anybody."
Fowles even showed off her passing skills with a pretty backdoor assist to RaShonta LeBlanc midway through the second half.
Fowles also got some help with some outside shooting from Allison Hightower and Ashley Thomas. Hightower hit three 3-pointers in the first half and Thomas hit a pair in the second after the Huskies cut LSU's lead to 12. The Lady Tigers led by at least 10 points for the final 26 minutes.
"Everybody always double teams Sylvia," Thomas said. "We knew we had to come out tonight and knock down shots. I did it and my teammates did it."
Thomas and Hightower scored 12 points apiece for LSU and Erica White added 11.
Montgomery led UConn with 17 points and Mel Thomas added 13.
"LSU exposed all the things we're not good at," UConn coach
Geno Auriemma said. "We tried to hide it as long as we could. ...
They made it a half-court game, and right now that's not one of our
Fowles scored nine points during an 18-4 run early in the game to give the Lady Tigers a 22-10 lead. She outscored UConn on her own through the first 11:54, scoring 13 points to the Huskies' 12.
Hightower then hit a pair of 3-pointers during a 10-0 run that expanded LSU's lead to 34-17 with 3:46 left in the half.
Fowles had three steals and two blocks in the half and her presence inside helped force UConn into 13 first-half turnovers.
"I don't know if there's anybody we've played in a long, long
time that poses those kinds of problems," Auriemma said.
Houston committed five of them, including a pair of travels early in the game with Fowles lurking nearby. The Huskies went scoreless for nearly 5 minutes during the key LSU run.
UConn scored the final five points of the half to go into the break down 34-22 -- matching its biggest halftime deficit of the season and marking the third straight game the Huskies trailed at the half.
The attendance was 3,046 in an arena that seats about 15,556, as few fans from the two schools from the eastern half of the country made the long trip to California.