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UConn Ready For Test, Sold-Out Crowd At No. 2 South Carolina. By Rich Elliott.

POSTED February 09, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – This is one of those games that was circled as soon as the schedule was released. There was no doubt that No. 1 UConn and No. 2 South Carolina were going to be national championship contenders. There was no doubt that the Gamecocks would be looking for a bit of revenge after being defeated soundly by the Huskies last season.

The game has finally arrived. UConn will collide with South Carolina in a battle of unbeatens Monday night at sold-out Colonial Life Arena (7; ESPN2). And it could not come a better time for the Huskies, who have won their last 12 games against American Athletic Conference opponents by an average of 49.2 points.

Tests are few and far between for UConn. When they present themselves Coach Geno Auriemma and the players wholeheartedly welcome them.

``I think that, obviously, this is going to give us our biggest test of the season thus far, and especially with their post presence it’s going to be a battle to say the least,” UConn star Breanna Stewart said. ``I think those are the games that you look forward to. It’s the biggest game of the year so far. This is why we come to UConn to play these games.”

The Huskies (22-0) lead the nation in margin of victory (41.6), with their biggest tests coming from Notre Dame (91-81 Dec. 5) and Maryland (83-73 Dec. 28). They have won 59 straight games overall.

The Gamecocks (22-0) have won 45 straight games at home, which is the longest active streak in the nation, dating back to a 50-48 loss to Texas A&M Feb. 10, 2013. They will be playing before the first sellout crowd (18,000) in program history.

``Everybody wants to win, don’t get me wrong,” Auriemma said. “But there’s a lot of coaches on a lot of teams that don’t want to play these games in February. I’m glad (South Carolina coach) Dawn (Staley) does. I always do. I always think they are good. And I think Monday night my kids are real excited about this. No matter how many games you win, no matter what your record is, no matter how many championships you have, when you have an opportunity to play against a really good team on the road, you get excited about it. They’re pretty excited about this one.’’

UConn is 18-3 all-time in games between the top two ranked teams in The Associated Press national poll. The Huskies are 13-2 as then No. 1 team in these games, winning 10 straight since a 90-75 loss to Notre Dame in the 2001 NCAA semifinals in St. Louis.

South Carolina is appearing in its third No 1 vs. No. 2 game (0-2), including an 87-62 loss to then-No. 2 UConn last season at Gampel Pavilion. The Gamecocks trailed 47-31 at halftime and committed 17 turnovers.

``I think last year we got caught up in the whole, `We’re playing UConn,' kind of mindset,” South Carolina senior All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell said. ``We were a young team last year so hopefully we’re past that. We’re a year more seasoned and hopefully we can play them like they’re any other team. We can't look at them and just go, `They’re UConn.’ We have to look at them as anyone else and just play our game.’’

The strength for South Carolina unquestionably lies in the lowpost. A’ja Wilson, a 6-foot-5 All-American sophomore forward, leads the team in scoring (16.7) and is second in rebounding (9.2). Alaina Coates, a 6-4 junior center, is third in scoring (12.9) and first in rebounding (10.0).

Wilson, who is averaging 20.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.2 blocks in nine games against ranked opponents this season, and Coates, who leads the nation in field goal shooting (.691), account for 39.1 percent of the scoring and 46.3 percent of the rebounding for the Gamecocks.

``They’re probably going to be the hardest team that we’ve played this year to defend in the lane because nobody else has that combination of size and strength,” Auriemma said. ``They both pass the ball pretty well. They both score really well around the basket. They’re both big and strong and tough kids. So it’s going to be a real challenge because we’re not as big. So I think there’s some advantages that we have. But if it comes down to what’s going to happen from the 15-foot mark to the basket, we’re going to have to figure out a way to deal with that. No one else has figured it out yet. But that’s probably the biggest challenge that we have defensively.”

South Carolina, who is 0-12 all-time when facing the No. 1 team, finished with 21 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points against UConn last season. Both represented season-highs by an opponent.

Stewart, at 6-4, 6-2 Morgan Tuck and 5-11 Gabby Williams will be primarily responsible for trying to contain Wilson and Coates.

``I’m definitely confident,’’ Stewart said. ``We know that people are going to be bigger than us at times in the season. And South Carolina, if you go across their spread I’m sure their posts are bigger than ours. But we have that, I guess, that will. Morgan and Gabby have that kind of feistiness. Because they are undersized posts they have to play with more of that.

``They’re big inside. The way that they rebound and attack the basket is going to be a test for us, but I have full confidence in my team.”

UConn will tie Tennessee (10-12) for having played in the most No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-ups in Division I history. Louisiana Tech is the only other program that has played in as many as 13 (9-4).

Auriemma said that he is hoping for a ``great game’’ Monday. The national championship will not be decided. It is merely a game pitting the top two teams in the nation against one another in early February. Nothing more.

In fact, Auriemma does not believe that he will learn much from his team. He already has his finger firmly on the pulse of this group heading into this showdown on the road.

“I think one thing I try to pride myself on is that I have a pretty good idea what my team’s strengths and weaknesses are,” Auriemma said. ``I have a pretty good idea of who can do what on our team. So let’s put it this way: Whatever happens on Monday I’m not going to be surprised. I don’t know that I’m going to learn anything about our team on Monday. I don’t think I’m going to be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. I can’t believe that happened.’ I’ve got an idea how Monday’s going to go, and hopefully I’m right. I think Monday we’re going to do a million great things that I expect us to do. And, Monday, some guys that I know I’m going to put on the floor are going to play lousy. I know that, too. So I don’t think anything that happens is going to surprise me.’’

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