PHILADELPHIA(Ticker) -- Sue Bird easily won her point-guard battle with Helen Darling as Connecticut used a convincing second-half run to clinch its second trip to the national championship game, 89-67 over Penn State in the semifinals.
Connecticut has won 16 straight and is in the title game for the first time since winning its only championship in 1995, which sets up a showdown against Tennessee on Sunday in the nation's premier rivalry. The meeting at the First Union Center will be the third season with the road team winning the previous two.
In the Huskies only other victory in the national semifinals, they defeated Tennessee to capture the title. They fell to Virginia in the 1991 semis and to Tennessee in 1996.
The game was once again a showcase for Bird, who has averaged 16.3 points over her last four games and has become the focal point of the Huskies' offense. Bird, who played only eight games last season before tearing her ACL, finished with 19 points.
"Sue Bird hasn't gotten any awards this season. She didn't even make first team (All Big East Conference)," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. "I wouldn't take any other point guard in America. Without her, there's no way we're here. She has a lot of guts." Bird also drilled a career-high five 3-pointers that tied the NCAA semifinal record with Purdue's Ukari Figgs, who accomplished the feat last season against Louisiana Tech en route to being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Darling, who also came in on a tear, did not score and was 0-for-6 from the floor in 39 minutes. Darling had averaged 17 points over his last three contests and scored in double figures six of her last seven games, but had very few open shots and looked frustrated as her school made its first appearance in the Final Four.
"I don't think it was very frustrating at all," Darling said. "It was just an off-night for me. There was nothing I can do about it but continue to play hard. Offensively, I wasn't playing well and you have those nights sometimes." Connecticut (35-1) tied the school record for most victories in one season which was established during the undefeated campaign in 1994-95 and can break the mark in Sunday's dream matchup against Tennessee.
"I was saying to (Lady Vols coach) Pat Summitt the other day that sometimes I think you don't win even when you have the best team," Auriemma said. "Being good is not good enough. You need some good fortune to smile on you." Penn State opened the second half with a 12-7 spurt as it cut a nine-point deficit to 44-40 with 15:47 left. Andrea Garner netted four points in that run and her two free throws closed it as the Lady Lions' faithful made their presence known.
Center Maren Walseth converted a 3-point play as Penn State moved within 57-53 with 10:58 remaining. But Connecticut established its dominance with the deciding run as All-American Shea Ralph scored her first points of the game on a 3-pointer just 18 seconds later.
Walseth left after receiving her fourth foul with 7:57 left and Connecticut took advantage in the paint. Swin Cash and Tamika Williams each converted layups for the Huskies and the Lady Lions had no answers as their dream of a national championship crumbled.
When the dust had cleared, the Huskies owned a 77-59 lead with 3:50 left thanks to a 20-6 spurt and the Connecticut vs. Tennessee matchup was a done deal. Cash finished with nine points in that spurt and Ralph added five.
"I thought the game went exactly how I thought the game would go," Auriemma added. "I thought if we could get the game going a little quicker than they would like, if we could isolate in the post one-on-one, that would be OK." "We feel tonight that there was a hard-fought game for about three minutes and the last seven minutes, they really pulled away for whatever reason," Penn State coach Rene Portland said. "Tonight, they really attacked us in the paint and most of their points in the second half came from the paint area and it was a great game up until that time." The Lady Lions had seen this before. When these teams played on December 5 in Orlando, Florida, the Huskies opened the contest with a 19-4 burst and posted an 87-74 victory. Connecticut had five players score in double figures in that contest and held Darling to just seven points.
The Huskies had complete command of their offense on this night, shooting 64 percent (18-of-28) from the field and 13-of-16 from the line. The Lady Lions hit 49 percent (16-of-33) over the final 20 minutes, but were 1-of-6 from beyond the arc and was 6-of-9 from the line.
Asjha Jones poured in 16 points, Svetlana Abrosimova added 14 and 10 with Williams finishing with 10 points for Connecticut, which shot 49 percent (32-of 65) and buried 6-of-12 3-pointers. Bird shot 6-of-13 from the field and also dished out five assists.
Garner finished with 19 points and Lisa Shepherd added 15 for the Lady Lions (30-5), who shot 43 percent (28-of-65) from the floor but could not extend their own record for most victories in one season.
Just like the first meeting, Connecticut hit Penn State with a first-half run as a 10-2 burst helped the Huskies lead, 37-25, with 58 seconds left. Jones finished with four points in the spurt and closed it on a layup for Connecticut. Bird finished the half with 11 points as the Huskies opened a 37-28 cushion.