UConn women start quest for 10th title on Saturday. By Rich Elliott.
By Rich Elliott
The UConn women’s basketball team has won 31 straight games since losing at Stanford in overtime Nov. 17. Yet, as the top-ranked Huskies prepare to open play in the NCAA tournament, they understand fully that without six more wins this season will be a disappointment.
Two-time defending national champion UConn is seeking to three-peat for the second time in team history (2002-04). Tennessee is the only other team to win three straight national championships (1996-98).
The Huskies (32-1) will begin their quest as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament for an NCAA-record 10th time Saturday when they face 16th-seeded St. Francis-Brooklyn (15-18) in the first round of the Albany regional at Gampel Pavilion (9 p.m.; ESPN2). UConn could meet former Big East foes eighth-seeded Rutgers (22-9) or ninth-seeded Seton Hall (28-5) in the second round Monday.
“We are definitely confident, and you have to be confident,” UConn junior point guard Moriah Jefferson said. “I think throughout the year we’ve done a lot of great things to build that confidence. You build it in practice. You build it in games. I think for me when I’m on the court with so many good players, it makes it hard not to have a lot of confidence.”
UConn received a No. 1 seed for the ninth straight year and the 18th time overall. The Huskies, who have won a record nine national championships, are making their 27th straight NCAA tournament appearance (97-17, NCAA-best .851). It is the third longest active streak and the third longest overall behind Tennessee (34) and Stanford (28).
St. Francis, who has won a season-high five straight games and eight of nine, won three road games to win the Northeast Conference tournament championship and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“I think at this time of the year you want your really good players to be playing well because that can hide a lot of things,” UConn coach Auriemma said. “It’s not going to be possible to have your top eight players all playing at the top of their game. Those that have been here before and those that are comfortable being in the limelight and being successful in that role really need to step up. This postseason they have. They have to continue to do that.
“We’re pretty healthy relatively speaking as much as anybody else can be this time of the year. Everybody’s just anxious to play now. Everybody just wants to get this thing started, and we’re in a pretty good frame of mind right now.”
Notre Dame (31-2), South Carolina (30-2) and Maryland (30-2) are the remaining No. 1 seeds. The Irish are competing in the Oklahoma City regional. The Gamecocks and Terrapins sit atop the Greensboro and Spokane regionals, respectively.
Maryland is situated on the same side of the bracket as UConn, looming as a potential opponent in the national semifinals at Amalie Arena in Tampa April 5.
“I thought it was pretty much what everyone thought it was going to be seeding-wise, especially with the No. 1s and the No. 2s,’’ UConn star Breanna Stewart said. ``It seems like no one really has an easy road per se. Every team we face we know we’re going to get their best shot.”
The Huskies could potentially face fourth-seeded California (23-9) in the regional semifinals and second-seeded Kentucky (23-9) or third-seeded/former Big East rival Louisville (25-6) in the regional final at Times Union Arena in Albany March 28 and 30, respectively.
UConn and Notre Dame are on target to meet in the tournament final for the second straight year. The Huskies defeated the Irish 79-58 last season in Nashville. Overall, they have collided in either the national semifinals or the final in each of the previous four seasons, with each team winning twice.
“I wish we had gotten some different seeds that we didn’t know,” Auriemma said. “The NCAA tournament is supposed to be about playing teams you don’t know that well. They picked three teams from our conference (South Florida/Albany regional, Tulane/Spokane regional). They couldn’t find another region to put the second-best team from our conference? So some things just don’t make sense. And Kentucky again for the third time in four years? Some things just make you shake your head, but that’s every year.”
Over the next three weeks, the Huskies are also looking to extend their NCAA record by advancing to the Final Four for the eighth straight season and the 16th time overall. A 10th national championship would ultimately tie Auriemma with former UCLA legend John Wooden for the most in the history of the sport.
``That’s kind of down the road a ways,” Auriemma said. “We’ve accomplished more here than any other program in the country has in the history of women’s basketball. So what does the possibility of one more (national championship) do? I kind of look at it more as what Stewie wants and what (Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis) wants. And (Morgan) Tuck didn’t play in last year’s tournament and what she wants. And our freshmen who during the recruiting process were told, ‘Hey if you come to Connecticut, our goal is to go to the Final Four and win a national championship.’ So if we were to get there it would be like, ‘Yeah, Coach said we were going to do this, and we did it.’ That’s kind of where I go with it as opposed to anything that might come.”