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UConn women second in Bridgeport Region, will open against Mercer

Storrs — The NCAA had three early bracket reveals this season prior to Selection Sunday, projecting where the teams would be headed in the national tournament if the season were to end at that point.

The projections are for excitement, maybe, or for discussion's sake.

The UConn women's basketball team's first predicted locale on Jan. 27 was as the No. 3 seed at the regional in Spokane, Wash., with the Huskies, who faced a season rife with illnesses and injuries which saw them lose five times, bouncing around in the ensuing bracket reveals from near-by Bridgeport in the second run-through on Feb. 10 and considerably south to Greensboro, N.C., in the third.

UConn, meanwhile, did the same thing it had done all season when faced with roadblock after roadblock. It played through all of the fodder, blitzing its last 10 opponents.

Finally, when it counted Sunday, the Huskies (25-5) wound up as the No. 2 seed in Bridgeport, safe within the confines of the northeast and ready to make a run to what would be their 14th straight Final Four, April 1 and 3 in Minneapolis.

UConn will begin play in the NCAA tournament facing No. 15 Mercer (23-6) on Saturday in Storrs at a time to be determined. The other first-round game in Storrs is No. 7 Central Florida (25-3) against No. 10 Florida (21-10).

Also in the Bridgeport Region are No. 1 North Carolina State, No. 3 Indiana and No. 4 Oklahoma.

The Huskies, who had eight of their 12 players miss extended time, including reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers, now have 11 players healthy and nine of them who have started at least seven games. That gives coach Geno Auriemma the ability to mix and match at will.

"Well, we have a lot of players at practice for for the first time in a long time, so that's been reassuring in some ways in that there's things we can do that we couldn't do before," Auriemma said following the selection show, asked what he likes about his team headed to the NCAA tournament.

"The way we played in the (Big East Conference) tournament, I think, gives us a glimpse of what we could be, how we played and the pieces and how they kind of fell together. But this is a whole different thing, the NCAA tournament."

UConn plowed through the Big East tournament last weekend at Mohegan Sun Arena, beating Georgetown 84-38, Marquette 71-51 and Villanova 70-40 in the championship game, with Auriemma saying the Huskies were in the "perfect situation" in terms of personnel.

The Huskies are led by Bueckers, who is working her way back from a left tibial plateau fracture, which required surgery, and is slowly reintegrating herself into the lineup.

Seniors Christyn Williams, the Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player who averages a team-high 14.6 points per game, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (9.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) were named All-Big East First Team selections and sophomore guard Nika Muhl was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Redshirt senior Evina Westbrook and sophomore Aaliyah Edwards were selected to the Big East all-tournament team.

UConn, ranked sixth in the nation, has won an unprecedented 11 national championships and reached its record 13th straight Final Four last year in San Antonio where it lost to Arizona in the national semifinals.

The NCAA tournament was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 and the entire tournament was played last season in a bubble in San Antonio, some of the games featuring no fans and some with limited attendance. To reach the Final Four this season, UConn would potentially play two games at Gampel Pavilion, followed by Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matchups in Bridgeport.

"They've experienced no tournament, some of our players. They've experienced a tournament with no fans. And those that have been around long enough now are fortunate enough to experience a tournament like it used to be with fans," Auriemma said.

"I just think the semblance of normalcy, I hope brings back some good feelings. The excitement, the hoopla that is part of this event — which is what makes it so great — is the fans, so I think having them back is going to make all the difference in the world."

Among UConn's newcomers to the NCAA experience are freshmen Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme and Amari DeBerry, as well as graduate transfer Dorka Juhasz, who played previously at Ohio State but never in an NCAA tournament. Juhasz called watching the selection show along with her teammates "super exciting."

"I follow the March Madness and the tournament every single year but it was always different," Juhasz said. "I always watched it outside kind of as a spectator just following every single game; now, I'm actually a part of it. I  saw our team on the board and it was like, 'Wow, Saturday we are playing.'

"I'm ready. It's going to be awesome."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

 

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