UConn embraces its role as the favorite

Breanna Stewart, right, leads her UConn teammates onto the court for practice Saturday afternoon at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., site of the NCAA Final Four. The Huskies play Maryland in the semifinals on Sunday. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Breanna Stewart, right, leads her UConn teammates onto the court for practice Saturday afternoon at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., site of the NCAA Final Four. The Huskies play Maryland in the semifinals on Sunday. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Tampa, Fla. – There is a sizeable target on the back of every member of the UConn women’s basketball team each time they step on the floor. It has been like that for years now as the top-ranked Huskies are considered the favorite to win every game they play.

It is a role that they have had no choice but to embrace. It is a role that has seen them thrive. And they are looking do so again over the next three days at Amalie Arena.

UConn will continue its latest run toward history Sunday night when it faces Maryland in the national semifinals (approximately 9 p.m., ESPN). The Huskies (36-1) stand two wins away from claiming a 10th national championship.

"They thrive on it because they embrace it," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They want it. They want to be in that role. And we just kind of keep feeding into it as coaches and we keep pushing it forward and we try not to shy away from it. There's no shying away from it. It is what it is. And you either embrace it and thrive in it or you wilt and you don't play."’

Notre Dame (35-2) will meet South Carolina (34-2) in the first semifinal matchup at 6:30. The Irish are making their fifth straight Final Four appearance.

The Huskies, who have won 35 straight games since an 88-86 loss in overtime at Stanford Nov. 17, are seeking to win a third straight national championship for the second time in program history (2002-04). Tennessee (1996-98) is the only other team that has won three straight championships.

Overall, winning a 10th championship would move Auriemma into a tie with legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden for the most by any coach in the history of the game.

"We know that everyone wants to beat us and it comes with the territory," UConn junior Breanna Stewart said. "We come to a program where we set the standard really high, and our goal is to get to the Final Four and to win championships. We know that we always have a target on our back."

This marks the 14th time in 16 Final Four appearances that the Huskies are a No. 1 seed. They have failed to win the national championship five times, losing in the national semifinals to Tennessee in 1996 (OT), to Notre Dame in 2001, 2011 and 2012 (OT) and to Stanford in 2008.

However, losses to the second-seeded Cardinal in Tampa and to the second-seeded Irish in Denver in 2012 represent the only losses that UConn has suffered to a lower ranked opponent in 24 games all-time at the Final Four. The Huskies are 9-0 in the national championship game, including a 79-58 win over Notre Dame last season in Nashville.

"They come to Connecticut to be the favorite,’’ ESPN analyst and former UConn star Rebecca Lobo said. "If they wanted to be an underdog they’d go somewhere else. I think it’s a certain kind of kid that wants to go to Connecticut and they have the mentality of, 'I want to win championships. I want people to gunning for me.' "

Maryland (34-2) has won a team-record 28 straight games since a 92-72 loss at Notre Dame Dec. 3 in reaching the Final Four for the second straight season.

This is the first meeting between the teams in the NCAA tournament since UConn’s 76-50 win in the Bridgeport regional final March 30, 2013.

"Aren’t we tired of (UConn winning)," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I know that there are a lot of people out there that are cheering and want to see Maryland be able to beat UConn. And I know for us and for our sport it would be a great thing to be able to have new teams out there."

The fourth-ranked Terrapins are led by the guard trio of senior Laurin Mincy (13.8 ppg, 3.4 apg) and sophomores Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (13.5, Spokane Regional Most Outstanding Player) and Lexie Brown (13.4 ppg, 4.6 apg), and sophomore center Brionna Jones (12.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg).

They account for 66.9 percent of Maryland’s scoring (79.2).

"We played them last year and we had a lot of success against them, but they’re a completely different team than they were last year," Auriemma said. "They’re much harder to play against this year than last year. They have more weapons and they use them. So it’s a tough, tough match-up. Our guards are really going to be under a lot of pressure."

The Huskies are no strangers to pressure. They face pressure from the coaching staff every day in practice. Pressure is something the players have welcomed and something they have overcome.

Facing Maryland simply represents the next hurdle along the path to attaining their ultimate goal – winning the national championship.

"I’d rather be the hunted than always trying to catch up," UConn sophomore Morgan Tuck said. "I think with us everyone wants us to lose, except for our fans. Everyone wants to beat us. And I think that pressure make us a little bit better."

Award time

Senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and juniors Moriah Jefferson and Stewart were named to the 10-player WBCA Coaches' All-America team Saturday during a ceremony at Amalie Arena. Stewart was also named the national Player of the Year by The Associated Press for the second straight season and won the Wade Trophy, which is considered the Heisman Trophy of women's college basketball.

"I think our players understand that if you win good things come your way," Auriemma said. "And our kids buy into that and Moriah certainly has done that as certainly K and Stewie. I think everybody will tell you that the three of them are pretty special when to comes to all that."

It is the second straight season and the fourth time overall that that the Huskies have had three players named to the team. Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Stewart were honored last season; Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore were honored in 2009; and Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi were honored in 2002.

Stewart and Jefferson will become the 17th and 18th players inducted into the Huskies of Honor next season.

UConn's Breanna Stewart poses with Crystal Molina, 16, of Dover, Fla., a member of the Tampa Bay Paralympic Sport team, the Huskies' open practice Saturday at at Amalie Arena in Tampa, site of the NCAA Final Four. (Tim Martin/The Day)
UConn's Breanna Stewart poses with Crystal Molina, 16, of Dover, Fla., a member of the Tampa Bay Paralympic Sport team, the Huskies' open practice Saturday at at Amalie Arena in Tampa, site of the NCAA Final Four. (Tim Martin/The Day)
UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis , second from right, receives assistance from her 4-year-old brother Xander Ali, during an autograph session for fans on the third level of the concourse following a team practice at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., Saturday. (Tim Martin/The Day)
UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis , second from right, receives assistance from her 4-year-old brother Xander Ali, during an autograph session for fans on the third level of the concourse following a team practice at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., Saturday. (Tim Martin/The Day)
UConn's Kia Nurse, standing left, tries to distract teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, far right, as Lewis is being interviewed in the UConn locker room after a team practice Saturday at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., site of the NCAA Final Four. (Tim Martin/The Day)
UConn's Kia Nurse, standing left, tries to distract teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, far right, as Lewis is being interviewed in the UConn locker room after a team practice Saturday at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., site of the NCAA Final Four. (Tim Martin/The Day)

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments