UConn women to begin NCAA tourney against Saint Francis (Pa.)

Storrs — Geno Auriemma characterized his former self as “anxious” while watching the NCAA tournament bracket being unveiled each season.

“It was probably right after I got done watching Oliver Stone's (John F.) Kennedy movie,” Auriemma, coach of the 11-time national champion UConn women's basketball team said with a laugh, having imagined every possible conspiracy. “(Now), I just shake my head and go, 'OK. This is what you got.'”

It was a more relaxed Auriemma who received his team's road map for the 2018 tournament Monday night.

He wore a Philadelphia Eagles “Super Bowl Champions” T-shirt, as it was announced that unbeaten UConn (32-0), the top overall seed and the No. 1 seed in the Albany Region, will play No. 16 Saint Francis (24-9) of Loretto, Pa., in the first round of the tournament beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday at Gampel Pavilion (ESPN2).

No. 8 Miami (21-10) and No. 9 Quinnipiac (27-5) will follow with a 1:30 p.m. game in Storrs in a rematch of last year's second-round game in Miami. The winners of Saturday's games will advance to the second-round game Monday.

Other top teams in the Albany Region include No. 2 South Carolina, the defending national champion; No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 Duke, No. 6 South Florida and No. 7 Cal.

The Albany Regional will be played at the Times Union Center on Saturday, March 24, and Monday, March 26, with the Final Four taking place in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, March 30, and Sunday, April 1.

UConn has been to 10 straight Final Fours. Auriemma's team, however, is coming off a 66-64 loss to Mississippi State in last year's national semifinals in Dallas, falling on a buzzer-beater in overtime which snapped the Huskies' unprecedented 111-game winning streak.

“It definitely motivates all of us,” UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson said of the loss a year ago. “It makes us realize how serious every single game is. … I think we have a different approach in just understanding what we need to get done. We are beatable. We have to be able to do what we do every game.”

“We have guys that have been on that stage before,” UConn senior Gabby Williams said. “It's completely different. You talk about it, what it's like to play in the Final Four, but you don't know what it's like. … We're really realizing if we let these things slip, we might let another one get away from us.”

The journey begins against Saint Francis, the Red Flash, who won their record 12th Northeast Conference tournament title Sunday, beating Robert Morris 66-56 behind 29 points from 5-foot-9 guard Jessica Kovatch, named the tournament's MVP.

Saint Francis is making its 12th NCAA tournament appearance since 1996, earning its first bid since 2011 when, as the No. 13 seed, it lost to Maryland. Last season the Red Flash were 17-15 and reached the second round of the Women's Basketball Invitational.

As for the Huskies' potential second-round opponent, Quinnipiac, Auriemma famously wore a Quinnipiac T-shirt under his UConn warmups during last season's NCAA tournament when the Bobcats were making a run to the Sweet 16.

Joining UConn as No. 1 seeds are Mississippi State (32-1) in the Kansas City Region, Louisville (32-2) in the Lexington Region and Notre Dame (29-3) in the Spokane Region.

UConn is a No. 1 seed for the 21st time in program history and for the 12th straight season.

“You don't know,” Auriemma said what the tournament might hold. “You're not prepared until it's time to do something. We were standing here last year saying, 'This team is really well prepared' and we weren't.

“If we put ourselves in the same situation again, we'll see. We've got a long way to go between now and then.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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