By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Top-ranked Connecticut heads to the Final Four in Nashville as the best shot-blocking team in the history of women’s basketball.
The defending national champions swat more than eight blocks a game and have sent back 313 shots this season, eclipsing the mark set by 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner and her Baylor teammates in 2011-12.
Nine of UConn’s blocks came in a 76-57 win over Stanford in November, and the Huskies (38-0) have a rematch with the Cardinal (33-3) Sunday in the national semifinals.
“If we can block shots, we’re going to try and go get them,” said UConn All-American Breanna Stewart, who has 106 blocks this season to lead the team. “Stanford, obviously, has a great post presence and (it) will be a test for us.”
Unlike Baylor, who had one dominant post player in 6-foot-8 Griner, UConn blocks shots by committee.
Stewart (6-4), Stefanie Dolson (6-5), and reserve forward Kiah Stokes (6-3) each average more than two blocks.
“The timing and the length, obviously comes naturally,” Stewart said. “But it’s fine-tuning.”
At practice, the Huskies try not to knock the ball out of bounds. Instead, they go straight up, tipping the ball into play, so that blocks become turnovers and translate into points.
“Our guards know that when someone drives into the paint, we may get a tip or a block and it’s going to go somewhere,” Dolson said. “So they are aware and a lot of times can just grab it and go. And then it’s a fast break.”
Coach Geno Auriemma said the Huskies’ presence underneath is a huge part of why they are undefeated and holding opponents to just 30-percent shooting from the field.
“If every team that you play against is forced to make jump shots, because your interior defense is really good, that is one step toward being a really good defensive team in the Final Four,” he said.
He expects the Huskies post players will get their biggest test of the season Sunday from Stanford’s front line. All-American Chiney Ogwumike is averaging more than 26 points, and Mikaela Ruef had a career-high 17 points in the Cardinal’s 74-65 victory over North Carolina in the regional final.
The Huskies will try to keep those two out of the paint, while staying out of foul trouble. None of UConn’s three post players has fouled out this season, despite how often they contest shots.
Stewart said that’s partly because of good technique.
“Mostly, shooters are right-handed, so you are always going to block it with your left hand, just because you’re not going to foul them that way,” she said. “The post coaches are always telling us to stay on our feet, not go for shot fakes. So I think that with that, we’re always straight up.”
Auriemma said the referees deserve some credit too.
“It used to be every time you blocked a shot, it was a foul,” he said. “So I think the officials have gotten better at recognizing when it’s a blocked shot and when it’s foul. I think therefore our players have, as other players around the country, been allowed to be better defenders and play better in the post.”
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)