The top seed in the women’s tournament opens play Saturday against Saint Francis (Pa.) (24-9), a team out of the Northeast Conference. The league is 0-24 in the history of the tournament. Saint Francis seeking its first win in 12 appearances.
UConn (32-0) has its sights set on a 12th national title and fifth in six years. The Huskies are 25-2 in first-round games, haven’t lost in the opening round since 1993 and won their opening-round games by an average of just over 42 points.
“It’s not always true, but generally speaking, I’d like to think that once you create a certain culture, once you create a certain level of commitment that your program has a pretty good chance of getting you to the regionals, to win two games,” Auriemma said Friday.
The second game at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday will feature another Connecticut team, No. 9 seed Quinnipiac (27-5) taking on eighth-seeded Miami (21-10). That’s a rematch of last year’s second-round upset by the Bobcats in Miami.
“It feels like a home-and-home,” said Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri.
The winner will likely have the task of trying to prevent UConn from making it to the Sweet 16 for a 25th straight season.
Saint Francis guard Jessica Kovatch, who averages just under 25 points per game, said her team considers it an honor just to have earned the opportunity to play the Huskies.
“I saw Geno at one of our tournaments and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God,'” she said. “And now, he’s kind of got to know your name, because you’re going to be playing against him. So, I think that’s pretty cool. Obviously, I’m going to take some pictures.”
Here are some other story lines from Saturday’s first-round games at Gampel Pavilion:
Miami’s players said they aren’t necessarily looking for revenge or redemption when they play Quinnipiac on Saturday, but last year’s 85-78 loss to the Bobcats is something that’s been on their minds all season.
“It fueled us,” said senior Erykah Davenport.
Quinnipiac guard Carly Fabbri, the coach’s daughter, said the Bobcats are ready to take the Hurricanes’ best shot.
“I think they’re definitely looking for a little bit of payback, obviously we ended their season last year,” she said. “But being up in Connecticut, obviously I think we’re going to have a bit of a home court advantage.”
Miami forward Erykah Hof disagrees. She said playing at Gampel may actually be an advantage for her team.
“There’s a lot of excitement that comes with hosting and we were all not really prepared for it,” she said. “I think it will actually help us to be here. We know everyone is going to be against us, so we just have to look at ourselves and turn within the team to pull this off.”
Miami coach Katie Meier said Quinnipiac just had a better night last year and the loss hasn’t been an “albatross around my neck.” But, she said there are some things she needs to learn from that game, such as how to keep the Bobcats from getting 24 assists on 28 field goals.
ACE UP THEIR SLEEVE
The NCAA Tournament is a new experience for most Saint Francis players, but not Ace Harrison, a graduate transfer from Maryland.
Harrison was a part of two Final Four teams and scored two points and had two rebounds in an 81-58 loss to UConn in the 2015 national semifinals.
Harrison told a story about attempting a 3-pointer in that game, only to have UConn’s Breanna Stewart come out of the lane (“I promise you, she’s in the paint”) to block her shot.
She said that was intimidating, but her coach told her to keep shooting. Eventually, she got one past Stewart and into the basket.
That’s a lesson she wants to pass along to her teammates.
“Anything can happen,” she said. “You’ve just got to keep playing through each possession and you can’t let anything discourage you out there on the court.”
UConn has relied on six players for much of the season and will go into the NCAA Tournament with one fewer player on the bench.
The school announced Friday that freshman guard Mikayla Coombs will miss the tournament after being treated for a blood clot in one of her legs.
Coombs played in 25 games, averaging just over one point had coming up with 17 steals.
Another freshman, Megan Walker, said she and the rest of the reserves are hoping to show the coaches on Saturday they are ready to step up if needed.
“I feel there is always an opportunity,” she said. “We just need to be ready in case of foul trouble or injury. Anything can happen, so we have to be ready.”