Revitalized Huskies are rested and raring to go

UConn's Tiffany Hayes stretches during practice Friday at Bridgeport. The Huskies play Prairie View in today's NCAA women's basketball tournament opener.
UConn's Tiffany Hayes stretches during practice Friday at Bridgeport. The Huskies play Prairie View in today's NCAA women's basketball tournament opener.

Bridgeport - Geno Auriemma and UConn are raring to go after being off for 10 days.

The top-seeded Huskies open up their NCAA tournament today against No. 16 Prairie View A&M. Eighth-seeded Kansas State will face No. 9 Princeton in the first game of the doubleheader.

After struggling through the latter part of the regular season with losses in their final two home games, UConn came together to win the Big East tournament in dominating fashion. The Huskies topped Notre Dame in the championship game, earning Auriemma his 800th career victory. The Hall of Fame coach became the fastest to reach that milestone.

"Ideally it would have been great if we could have played a week ago on Saturday," Auriemma said. "That would have been better for us. I think any time you have a little momentum going and feel good about your team and they feel good about themselves and they like to capitalize on it.

"To wait 10 days, it's hard to sustain that."

The time off allowed senior guard Tiffany Hayes to rest a stress injury in her right foot. She wasn't able to practice the first few days, but returned Thursday.

"Practice went well," Hayes said. "My status for tomorrow is that I will be playing."

For the first time in Hayes' career, the Huskies (29-4) aren't the favorite to win the national championship. That's fine with her.

"I think this will be the best (championship) to me because nobody expects us to win because nobody thinks we can do it," she said.

This is Huskies' 24th straight trip to the NCAA tournament and they've made it to at least the regional semifinals the last 18 years, including winning seven national championships.

Prairie View A&M (17-15) is making its fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament in the past six seasons. The Lady Panthers are still looking for the school's first victory. Last year they were crushed 66-30 by Baylor, setting an NCAA tournament record for the fewest points ever in a half - scoring just eight in the first 20 minutes of that game.

"We don't have anything to lose," Lady Panthers coach Toyelle Wilson said. "You've got to cherish these moments. You'll have them for the rest of your life."

Like Prairie View, Princeton is looking for its first NCAA victory. It's already been a special season for the Tigers, who became the first Ivy League team to make the Top 25 when they were 24th in the final poll of the season released Monday. Princeton's seeding is the best for an Ivy League school and the Tigers hope to end a 14-year drought for the conference in the NCAAs.

Harvard remains the only Ivy League team to win a game, shocking No. 1 Stanford in the opening round of the 1998 tournament. Princeton assistant Milena Flores was on that Cardinal team.

"This team has had quite a ride this year, a lot of firsts," Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. "Most of their goals were met - win the Ivies, go undefeated in the league, lose no more than four games, get in the Top 25, get a high NCAA seed. Now we have one left, get a postseason win."

The Tigers, who enter the NCAAs with a 17-game winning streak, are making their third straight appearance in the tournament. They lost to St. John's in 2010 and Georgetown last season.

Princeton (24-4) was missing Ivy League player of the year Niveen Rasheed in last year's loss. Rasheed, who was sidelined with an ACL injury, averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds this season to lead the team.

"It was the hardest thing to sit on the bench and not contribute and not giving anything," Rasheed said. "To get back to this moment, this is what we work for all year to play this game. If we lose Saturday our season is done. We want to keep our season going."

It's the second straight season that Kansas State (19-13) has made the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats also were sent to Connecticut last year as an eight-seed and lost to Purdue in the opening round. Kansas State also played in Bridgeport in 2008.

"When you think about Connecticut, you think about collegiate women's basketball," Kansas State coach Deb Patterson said. "We have a familiarity because we have been twice here and last year in Storrs. We feel almost like this is our destination spot. Some people go to St. Thomas, the Bahamas, we come to Connecticut."


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