TRENTON, N.J. -- All season long Connecticut has been on cruise control, dominating opponents with double-digit victory margins.
Sunday was no different; it just took awhile.
When the Huskies found themselves down eight points -- their biggest deficit of the year -- they didn't panic. Instead, the Huskies turned up the defense, forced turnovers and outscored the Bears during a crucial stretch to advance to their 14th regional final in the last 16 seasons.
Freshman Tiffany Hayes scored a career-high 28 points as the undefeated Huskies beat fourth-seeded California 77-53. The Huskies will face Arizona State on Tuesday night with a trip to the Final Four at stake. The Sun Devils beat Texas A&M 84-69 to advance to the second regional final in school history.
Trailing by eight late in the first half, Connecticut went on a 40-12 run over the next 20 minutes to take control of the game.
"As time went on the true character of this team came out," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I love the way we handled the game in the second half. That was classic Connecticut basketball."
UConn (36-0) continued its march toward the school's third perfect season. The Huskies have entered the NCAAs unbeaten three other times. Connecticut went on to win the national championship in 1995 and 2002. In 1996-97, the Huskies lost to Tennessee in the regional final.
Ashley Walker scored 21 to lead California (27-7), which was making its first trip to the regionals after blowing out Fresno State and Virginia in the first two rounds.
Hayes finished 9-for-10 from the field easily surpassing her previous career high of 23 set against Louisville. She also had seven assists and five rebounds.
"Tiffany just had an all-around great game," said Maya Moore, who added 22 points. "I was looking at the stat line, and I didn't realize she had seven assists and zero turnovers. She led us tonight with her confidence.
Moore is now seven points short of breaking the UConn single-season record of 694 set by Kara Wolters in 1995-96.
Connecticut had dismantled opponents this season, including beating seven ranked teams by an average of 31 points.
But the Huskies got off to a nightmarish start Sunday as center Tina Charles picked up two quick fouls and sat out most of the first half. Montgomery couldn't buy a basket, missing nine of her first 11 shots. It certainly wasn't how the Huskies were used to starting games. Fourteen times this season they had at least a 20-point lead at the half.
California jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the first few minutes. It marked the first time UConn had trailed in a game since an early deficit against Seton Hall on Feb. 28.
It didn't get much better for the Huskies, who fell behind 31-23 on Walker's 3-pointer with 6:38 remaining before the break, forcing Auriemma to call time-out and silencing the mostly pro-Huskies crowd.
That's when UConn turned up its defense and started looking like the best team in the country. Over the next 20 minutes, UConn outscored Cal 41-12, holding the Bears to 4-for-27 shooting and 10 turnovers.
"I wish I could tell you it was magical by me," Auriemma said. "I'd look really good, but that wasn't necessarily the case. We made a lot of mental errors early on. Once we settled everyone down the game slowed down for them."
Connecticut started the spurt scoring 12 straight, including the last five by Hayes to take a 35-31 advantage with 13.4 seconds left.
Alexis Gray-Lawson finally ended Cal's scoring drought, hitting two free throws with 3.4 seconds left for the halftime margin.
Connecticut continued its burst to start the second half expanding the lead to 47-37 on Montgomery's three-point play 3 minutes in.
"With their 12-2 run I could see our team a little anxious going into the locker room," Cal coach Joanne Boyle said. "When we didn't get the first four or five stops they started questioning themselves, and it started to snowball."
Gray-Lawson connected on a 3 on the other end to cut the deficit to seven before UConn put the game away scoring 13 of the next 16 points to make it 63-43 on Kalana Greene's layup with 9:13 left.
By the time Walker hit a jumper with just over 6 minutes left to end the drought the game was in hand.
Cal would get no closer than 16 the rest of the way.
Despite the loss, the Bears were happy to have established themselves as a national power.
"We left a legacy behind us so that the class coming in and can really put Cal on the map the next couple of years," Walker said.