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Differences Abound With UConn Set To Face Mississippi State In National Semifinals (By Rich Elliott)

POSTED March 30, 2017
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By Rich Elliott

DALLAS – The film of last season’s game between UConn and Mississippi State in the NCAA regional semifinals has earned a great deal of mileage over the past year. Both teams have watched the Huskies’ 98-38 victory for various reasons, with the common theme being that both teams are completely different at this point.

All-Americans Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck are no longer wearing a UConn uniform. Senior Saniya Chong, juniors Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse and sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson have since assumed significant roles for the Huskies. And Mississippi State returns its top eight players.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma watched the film one final time Thursday morning. He then again reminded his players that last season has no bearing on Friday night’s crucial rematch in the national semifinals at American Airlines Center (10; ESPN2).

``There's nobody on this team right now that had anything other than `I was at that game’ to do with that score,’’ said Auriemma, who has been named the National Coach of the Year by The Associated Press for the ninth time. ``If you watch that game, Stewie looked like an NBA player playing against high school kids. Moriah was so much better than anybody on the floor. And Tuck just dominated long stretches of the game. So the score was like 30-4 at the end of the first quarter. I think Lou had one bucket. I don’t think Kia had any. The other guys didn't even play. If they think they had anything to do with that win, they're going to be reminded, `No, they didn't.’ This is not the same Mississippi State team we played. The turnaround they've made offensively has been remarkable. They're still the same defensive team that they were. And we’re not the same team by any stretch of the imagination. If those three seniors were here I would have a tough time convincing them. But it won't be tough with this team.’’

The Huskies, who have won 111 straight games and a record 28 straight NCAA tournament games, are appearing in their 10th straight Final Four and their 18th overall. They are looking to claim their fifth straight national championship and their 12th overall.

South Carolina (31-4) and Stanford (32-5) will meet in the first game (7:30 p.m.; ESPN2).

``Everyone knows what’s going on. Everyone knows why we’re here,’’ Williams said. ``But we’re really locked in on Mississippi State right now and we know how tough of a team they’re going to be.’’

UConn (36-0) scored the first 13 points and led 32-4 at the end of the first quarter and 61-12 at halftime in Bridgeport last March. It was the largest margin of victory in the Sweet 16.

Mississippi State’s starters – Ketara Chapel, Dominque Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, Victoria Vivians and Morgan William combined for 12 points (6-for-35 FG, 0-for-7 3-pointers) and 10 turnovers in 121 minutes.

The loss is something that the Bulldogs (33-4) have not forgotten. It is one that has served as motivation during their run to their first Final Four.

``Coming back to school from the tournament last year, honestly I didn’t even want to go to class the next day,’’ Vivians said. ``You really couldn’t explain it, because it’s 60 points. Just going back to work out again, we walked in the weight room and there was a big 60 on the glass. It was crazy that we were still seeing it after we lost. It was always a reminder in our heads, and then we had to watch film on it. To be back in this position we are in today Coach (Vic Schaefer) is like, ‘Don’t forget what happened last year.’

``Just seeing it or hearing about it all the time has been a reminder for us, ‘Don’t let it happen again.’’’

Not only are the Bulldogs, who had previously never advanced past the regional semifinals, a different team right now, they have made a significant jump offensively during the NCAA tournament.

Mississippi State is averaging 92.8 points through the first four games, an increase of 18.0 over the first 33 games this season. Juniors Vivians (15.5), Schaefer (13.5) and William (13.0) and sophomore McGowan (13.3) are each averaging in double figures.

Schaefer’s scoring is up 9.4. McGowan is up 5.1 William is up 2.4 and scored a team single-game NCAA record 41 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 94-85 win over Baylor in overtime in the Oklahoma City regional final.

``I think a big thing that went into the change is the two-week break we had coming out of SEC play,’’ Dillingham said. ``We got back and we had practices for that whole two weeks. We just worked a lot on our offense, executing offensively, setting better screens, coming off those screens better. I think as a whole we just got better offensively. We really focused on executing. We knew if we wanted to win big ballgames, you have to execute offensively down the stretch. That was a really big focus for us.’’

Looking at feeding the hot hand, Schaefer altered the starting lineup at the outset of the tournament. This move included sitting Vivians for the first three games of her career over the first three rounds. He also benched forwards Breanna Richardson and Okorie and guard Dillingham in wins over Troy, DePaul and Washington.

Schafer returned all four players to the lineup against Baylor.

``I think Vic should have been Coach of the Year,’’ Auriemma said. ``I think what they did this season was remarkable, not because all of a sudden they're in the Final Four but because they already had a good team. They changed the look of their team, even though they had a lot of the same players back. He did some things that were a little bit different than they did last season, and it showed in their play. They’re an unbelievably good team. He’s done an amazing job.’’

Similar to Mississippi State, UConn also has something to prove tonight. Stewart (22), Tuck (19) and Jefferson (7) combined for 48 points last season, including 30 of the team’s 32 in the first quarter. Nurse and Samuelson contributed just one layup apiece when the game was being decided early on.

``We definitely do because throughout the whole year we’ve been trying to prove everybody wrong and I think that so far that’s what we’ve been doing,’’ Chong said. ``And just coming in the game … This year we have a new team so we’re just going to go out there and just play how we’ve been playing all season.’’

The Huskies are averaging 96.5 points in the tournament, fueled by the production of Collier (24.0), Williams (21.3), Nurse (18.3) and Samuelson (15.3). Chong has averaged 13.5 points in the last two games.

``I think for other teams it’s a hard matchup,’’ Nurse said. ``And not only individually are we a hard match-up, but as a team we’re a hard match-up. That kind of allows us to get what we need to get done on offense.’’

Both teams are different. Both teams are playing their best at the right time. Both teams know what is at stake. UConn is chasing perfection. Mississippi State is looking to prove exactly how much it has changed in one year.

``We know we have a tremendous challenge in front of us going against a team that’s the best program in the history of the game, coached by the best coach in the history of the game, men or women,’’ Schaefer said. ``We know what’s in front of us. We’ve had to deal with it before. Obviously, we dealt with it last year and it wasn’t a real good experience. But I think we've grown from that day. We’ve learned from it.’’

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