THIS IS WHAT stood in Connecticut's way to a fourth straight Final Four, in pursuit of a third straight title and a record-tying eighth overall.

Duke.

The team UConn embarrassed the worst in the regular season. Duke, then ranked No. 3, lost at No. 2 Connecticut by a whopping 36 points on Jan. 31. It was the worst Duke could play, said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, and, he said, it was the best UConn could manage.

Duke didn't play its worst last night. It just got manhandled by the nation's best player and lost again, this time, 75-40.

This time, 35 points.

Baby steps?

"We weren't too live," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said.

That's another way of saying that, after hanging in for the first 17 minutes, the Blue Devils rolled over.

Played dead.

They hardly could be blamed. Sometimes, there's nothing you can do. Not against the best.

Four-time All-America Maya Moore made her case for another Player of the Year award with a destruction of Duke, the No. 2 seed in the Philadelphia Regional. She scored 28 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and collected seven steals for top-seeded UConn, and was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player. Her final basket of the night gave her 3,000 points, only the seventh player in Division I women's basketball to hit that mark.

Connecticut (36-1) will try to beat Big East rival Notre Dame for the fourth time this season when they meet Sunday. It is UConn's 12th Final Four appearance.

Afterward, it seemed a matter of course. But until the 3-minute mark in the first half, it was anything but decided.

Really.

Then, UConn erupted with a 29-3 run over the next 12 minutes, 15 seconds. Just before Duke scored with 10 minutes left in the game, UConn led, 52-23.

It began like that, too. In between, Duke (32-4) was actually competitive.

UConn sprinted to a 10-2 lead, executing precisely, defending with venom. All 10 points came on layups as the Huskies went 5-for-7; one of the misses also was a layup. Duke gathered itself and clawed back to within three on Karima Christmas' layup with 3:37 to play in the half.

UConn, shorthanded as usual (Auriemma has played primarily six players here) and exhausted, reverted to the two-three zone that saved it in the second half of its Sweet 16 comeback win Sunday over Georgetown.

Duke didn't score again in the half. It missed six straight, two of them on blocked shots, including a vicious rejection by the 6-foot Moore of the 6-5 Krystal Thomas.

A fastbreak layup, a three by Moore and Moore's baseline jumper at the buzzer - her signature shot of the night - gave UConn a 30-20 halftime lead.

"To get that last basket is huge for momentum going into halftime," said UConn guard Kelly Faris.

Auriemma had called a timeout and set up the play for Moore, who received the ball in the right corner, threw a head fake, took a dribble toward the hoop as the defender flew past, and drained the shot as the horn sounded.

"That was big for us," Moore agreed. "It felt good to execute. That's exactly how you want to go into the half."

Especially with a coach as vitriolic as Auriemma, said Moore:

"I'm happy that he's happy."

That lead grew to 39-22 in the next 4 minutes, mostly thanks to Moore. She stole the ball on Duke's opening possession, drove, was fouled and made both free throws; deposited an easy layup; and tipped in a miss, her 10th rebound and her 19th point.

All the Blue Devils could do afterward was wonder at her greatness . . . and rue their weak play as Moore repeatedly received the ball, wide open, in soft spots of their zone.

"We lost contact with her," Christmas said. "We needed to bump her more."

They needed to catch her first.

You da man?

Given the opportunity, Geno Auriemma declined to pat himself on the back for reaching the Final Four this challenging season. Faced with the loss of two seniors to graduation, the loss of his point guard to injury last summer, a midseason transfer and the end of their record 90-game winning streak, the Huskies have remained a power.

When his teams succeed, Auriemma said, he doesn't recline with a glass of wine and reflect. However, he does agonize when they underachieve:

"I know when I've not done a job that I'm proud of."

Good ol' summertime

Auriemma, a Norristown native, on his team's giddy, reckless play early in the game:

"When you get to this point here, you're like a little kid going down the shore. As soon as you get on the Parkway, you start jumping up and down in the back seat. You can't wait to get there."

Oh, OK

With 7:39 to play, Moore left the game briefly with a left knee injury, suffered as she made a back-cut, away from the ball, on the right wing. She was two points shy of hitting 3,000. At the urging of his staff, who argued that it would be one fewer distraction next weekend, Auriemma sent Moore back in with 4:46 to play, solely to hit the mark. She did so 63 seconds later and promptly was removed.

"That's the first time I've ever done that," Auriemma said.

Tip-ins

Maya Moore yesterday also was named a first-team All America for the fourth time, only the second woman with that distinction (Courtney Paris, Oklahoma) . . . After an ineffective effort Sunday against Georgetown, Huskies freshman center Stefanie Dolson dominated the interior, holding post players Krystal Thomas and Haley Peters scoreless on seven shots, while scoring 12 points and pulling six rebounds . . . For the second game in a row, UConn reserve point guard Lorin Dixon played a solid floor game. For her efforts, she was named to the All-Tournament team, despite scoring a total of six points . . . UConn freshman Bria Hartley, who moves from the point to the wing when Dixon plays, scored 14 points and had six assists . . . Jasmine Thomas managed 17 points for Duke, but she made only seven of 22 shots. *