Pressure? Not for UConn women, who are embracing the challenge
Indianapolis — The UConn women's basketball team has chased history in the past. There have been record winning streaks. There have been perfect seasons and record national championship runs.
The pressure seems to rest on the shoulders of the top-ranked Huskies the instant they set foot on campus because of the program's highly decorated past. Nothing has changed for this particular collection of players.
UConn (36-0) is attempting to become the first team in Division I women's basketball history to win four straight national championships. In light of facing Oregon State in the NCAA national semifinals Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (6 p.m., ESPN), senior star Breanna Stewart was adamant that the Huskies are not feeling any pressure even with so much at stake over the next three days.
"Everybody does want to beat us, but I'm not really thinking about the pressure, honest," Stewart said. "I don't think I could be more confident than I am right now. The experience of being in the Final Four three times before and knowing what's expected and knowing that this is when we play our best basketball, we are just excited to get going."
The Huskies, who have won 73 straight games and a record 22 straight NCAA tournament games, are appearing in their ninth straight Final Four and 17th overall. They are looking to secure a record 11th national championship.
Another championship would give coach Geno Auriemma one more than any other Division I men's or women's basketball coach in history. Legendary men's basketball coach John Wooden won 10 at UCLA.
"It's kind of crazy to think that it could be two games and we have our goal," UConn senior Morgan Tuck said. "And it's hard to not think about that just because it's two games. So I think for us it's more of we have to try to look at it as one game at a time because we don't want to underestimate Oregon State or any of the teams here."
Syracuse (29-7) will face Washington (26-10) in the second semifinal (8:30 p.m., ESPN2). Both teams are making their first Final Four appearance.
Oregon State (32-4) has also reached the Final Four for the first time in eight NCAA tournament appearances. The Beavers' best finish had been a Sweet 16 appearance in 1983 when the tournament featured 32 teams.
Senior guard Jamie Weisner said Oregon State is fully aware of what UConn has accomplished despite being situated on the West Coast. She also pointed out that the Beavers will not be in awe or intimidated by the Huskies.
"We know about them. It's hard to miss. They're on ESPN all the time," Weisner said. "And, obviously, what they're doing is legendary. And, for me, I would say it's even an honor to play against them. In 20 years I can tell my kids that I played against that UConn team. It's an incredible honor and we're going to go into it very prepared and fearless."
The Beavers, who have set a team single-season record for wins, lead the nation in field goal percentage defense (.317). They have held 32 of their 36 opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field, while holding 14 below 30 percent.
Through the first four games in the NCAA tournament, Oregon State has been even better defensively. Fifteenth-seeded Troy, 10th-seeded St. Bonaventure, sixth-seeded DePaul and top-seeded Baylor combined to average 49.8 points and shoot 30.0 percent (28.4 3-pointers).
"Our defensive transition has been our foundation," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "We make teams play 5-on-5, typically. And that needs to continue certainly. Connecticut is quick-hitting and they execute so efficiently in transition, which is one of the things that I've always liked about them. And we can't allow that. So we've to be true to ourselves.''
The Beavers held Baylor to 57 points and 38.5 percent shooting from the field in the Dallas regional final. The Lady Bears entered the game averaging 78.2 points and shooting 48.7 percent from the field.
Oregon State also leads the nation in defensive rebounds per game (32.0) and is sixth in scoring defense (51.2) and rebounding margin (11.7). The Beavers have been outrebounded in only three games this season.
"We've been seeing different things all year," UConn senior Moriah Jefferson said. "So at this point there's nothing that we haven't seen. It's just about going out and trying to prove ourselves once again. They're a really, really good team and we're going to have to stop whatever we can to stop them."
There is little doubt that Oregon State has yet to face a team as dynamic as UConn, who leads the nation in scoring (88.4) and field goal percentage (.529). The Huskies are averaging 95.5 points and shooting 56.3 percent from the field (50.7 3-pointers) in the NCAA tournament.
"I think it's definitely just a mental thing, like you can't lose the game before you step foot on the court," Hamblin said. "You've just got to know that they are humans and they're going to make mistakes. And every team is beatable if you play the right way. You know that they're not invincible."
Offensively, Oregon State is led by its version of the Big Three – Hamblin, Weisner and junior guard Sydney Wiese. They are accounting for 61 percent of the team's scoring (43.4) and 53.4 percent of the rebounding (25.9) in the tournament.
Weisner, an Associated Press second team All-American and the Pac-12 Player of the Year, was named the regional Most Outstanding Player. She is averaging 19.8 points (11-for-23 3-pointers) and 6.8 rebounds in the tournament.
Wiese, Oregon State's career leader with 269 3-pointers, is averaging 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists in the tournament. And Hamblin, who was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second-straight season, is the nation's active leader in blocked shots with 419 and is averaging 11.3 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the tournament.
"What worries me is they're used to playing in big games," Auriemma said. "They're used to making plays. They're used to making free throws. They just beat a really, really good team to get here. They're playing their best basketball at the perfect time of the year. They're really well coached. I've got to tell you that this team is as good as any team that's in the country today."
The Huskies are confident right now. They are focused on the task at hand. Sophomore Kia Nurse said that their collective mindset is right where it should be.
Standing two wins shy of making history, UConn again is embracing its latest challenge .
"We're so close to it and we know that we can't underestimate a team or come in too relaxed and think, 'Oh, we've have this because we've done it the last three years,'" Tuck said. "So I think for us it's right there. We just have to buckle down and do it."
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