KINGSTON, R.I. — Before the season started, Geno Auriemma figured his Connecticut Huskies wouldn't be good enough to make it to the Final Four.
A funny thing happened along the way: His starless team jelled, and now UConn is back in the national semifinals for a fifth straight season.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 and top-seeded Connecticut beat Kentucky 80-65 on Tuesday night in the Kingston Region final.
"We like to go to the Final Four every year," Auriemma said. "I think we're also realistic, some years it's going to be easier than others. Expectations are always there, regardless of the probability. This year was less than other years. Makes it more worthwhile. Last year we went as a team led by Maya Moore. This year there isn't any of that. The University of Connecticut is going to the Final Four and I think that's pretty cool once in a while."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18 for UConn (33-4), which will play Notre Dame on Sunday in Denver.
Auriemma said facing the Irish: "We've got two of the best teams in the country. That's going to be as hard to win as any other time we've played them. They are really, really, really good."
Hayes, selected most outstanding player of the region, has been to a Final Four in all four of her seasons. This time was special to the senior: "It's even sweeter because this is a team effort, it wasn't one or two people getting us there. We all had our part in it. Glad to be back for the fourth time."
The Huskies matched their own NCAA record of consecutive Final Four trips set from 2000-04. LSU and Stanford have also accomplished the feat.
Unlike their previous four trips to the region finals, which were quick blowouts, the Huskies had to work hard.
UConn led 48-47 early in the second half before turning up its defense and going on a 21-4 run. Hayes, who scored seven during the run, got it started with a lay-in. Then the Huskies started a parade to the line, converting 12 free throws.
Mosqueda-Lewis' 3-pointer with 7:26 left capped UConn's burst. Kentucky (28-7) got no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
It has been a strange season for UConn. Despite running through the early part of its schedule, Auriemma knew the team's shortcomings would eventually be exposed. Road losses to Baylor and Notre Dame were understandable, but at the end of February UConn really came to a crossroads.
The Huskies lost to St. John's on senior night, snapping a 99-game home winning streak. Nine days later they fell to Notre Dame. Since then they've been unstoppable, cruising to the Big East tournament championship and rolling through three NCAA Tournament games.
Now UConn is back in the Final Four for the 13th time in 18 years. Kentucky, meanwhile, lost in the region finals for the second time in three seasons.
"It's hard to get to where we got to tonight and they've been here so many times, it's difficult," Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We need to stay at it and keep showing up and one day we'll punch through."
NOTRE DAME 80, MARYLAND 49: Skylar Diggins had a triple-double and the Irish (34-3) earned their second straight Final Four berth by routing the Terps (31-5) in the Raleigh (N.C.) Region final.
Diggins, the Big East player of the year, had 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and five steals. She kept Notre Dame's four-guard lineup humming and causing the second-seeded Terrapins fits all night. The Irish had a 46-27 rebounding edge on low-post-oriented Maryland.
The Terrapins trailed by 19 in the first half and never got close from there, denied a fourth Final Four trip and first since winning the national title in 2006.