ALBANY – At this point in the college basketball season, the narrative is simple.
Survive and advance.
The UConn women’s basketball team has done just that so far, advancing to the Elite Eight after defeating the Duke Blue Devils 72-59 in the Sweet 16 Saturday afternoon.
“We’re in a great spot,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said in a press conference Sunday. “We’re in the spot where we wanted to be when the season started.”
The Huskies haven’t struggled too much on their way to the Albany Regional Final matchup, defeating Saint Francis (PA), Quinnipiac and the Blue Devils without too much trouble, but the narrative still rings true. They must survive and advance three more games to be crowned national champions for the 12th time.
“It’s not easy, it’s never easy when you get this far because there are no easy games and there are no easy teams,” Auriemma said. “I think every team that plays this weekend understands that and I think we have a team that has enough experience and has been through these a number of times and I feel good about where we are right now.”
To do that, the No. 1 overall seeded Huskies (35-0) now face perhaps their toughest test of the season and will need to be at their absolute best Monday night in the Times Union Center, when they take on the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks in what will be a rematch of a Feb. 1 matchup in Columbia, South Carolina, a game the Huskies dominated 83-58. UConn will look to prove again they are the team to beat after missing out on the title last year.
“They’re just a team that’s on a mission,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said of UConn’s drive for success this season. “I think they’re probably more hungry than they’ve ever been because they didn’t win a national championship last year, but that also puts them in a place which is unfamiliar to them ‘cause they’re used to being the defending national champions.”
That game, as convincing of a win as it was, is thrown out the window now that it’s March. Anything can happen come tourney time and both UConn’s players and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma know that.
“This is March and things are different in March,” Auriemma said. “We proved at their place that we’re really, really good. But the problem with where we are and where this tournament is you have to prove it again. And if South Carolina beats us tomorrow night, nobody’s gonna write the headline in the paper, ‘South Carolina goes to the Final Four, but don’t forget they lost in February at home.’ Nobody’s gonna give a damn about that game.”
The Huskies have never lost in six matchups with the Gamecocks, and have won four games against South Carolina in the last four years, outscoring them 302-229 in that span. One would think this means the pressure is on the Gamecocks to break that streak and defend their title, but UConn senior forward Gabby Williams said the pressure is actually on the Huskies to win this game.
“I think we (have more pressure),” Williams said. “You know, obviously there’s pressure both ways but for us, if we come short of this, it’s kind of a disappointing season. And I think that just goes with the 30 years of history that this program has that we’ve built up, that we have such high expectations every single year.”
Auriemma not only agreed with his star senior, but also said it was the truth and that it’s better than pretending there is no pressure, especially in his program.
“There’s no games you ever play at Connecticut where the pressure’s not on you,” Auriemma said. “Most really good coaches and really good players, they don’t try to avoid the pressure. They don’t pretend it’s not there. It’s there and it’s especially there at Connecticut. It’s there the day you sign your letter of intent. It’s there the day you show up on campus, it’s there every day in practice and every game you play. There’s no getting around that.”
Auriemma continued by saying his players have handled all the pressure of being UConn women’s basketball players extraordinarily well, despite that heavy burden.
“Everywhere we go, when people play us, it’s, ‘We’re playing Connecticut.’ That’s what our kids live with every day,” Auriemma said. “And the interesting part is they manage to be great in that environment. It’s remarkable, I think, when you come to Connecticut and you realize that there’s nothing you can do in your four years that hasn’t already been done. I mean, unless you go undefeated all four years.”
While a majority of this Huskies’ team has no chance to complete their collegiate careers undefeated, they can still complete the 2017-18 season with an undefeated season and a national championship with just three more wins, starting with an Elite Eight victory over South Carolina.
The pressure cooker is increasing in intensity for these two national powers and the magnifying glass on UConn v. South Carolina will only continue to zoom in until tip-off Monday at 7 p.m. in the Times Union Center.