‘Intimidating’ UConn next up for BYU
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma laughs during practice in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, March 28, 2014. Connecticut will play BYU in an NCAA Lincoln Regional women's semifinal basketball game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma speaks during a news conference before NCAA college basketball practice in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, March 28, 2014. Connecticut will play BYU in a Lincoln Regional women's semifinal game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson (31) shoots during practice in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, March 28, 2014. Connecticut will play BYU in an NCAA Lincoln Regional women's semifinal basketball game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
BYU coach Jeff Judkins laughs during a news conference ahead of practice in Lincoln, Neb., Friday, March 28, 2014. BYU will play Connecticut in an NCAA Lincoln Regional women's semifinal basketball game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
LINCOLN, Neb. — BYU has come up with two of the biggest upsets in the NCAA women’s tournament to get to the school’s first Sweet 16 since 2002.
The 12th-seeded Cougars are going to need a monumental effort to pull off a third and beat top-ranked UConn in the regional semifinals on Saturday.
No one has played UConn (36-0) within single digits during the Huskies’ 42-game win streak, which includes victories over Prairie View A&M and Saint Joseph’s by a combined 82 points in the first two rounds of the tournament. Their average margin of victory this season is 36 points.
“It’s very intimidating, and they’ve been here every year, so they’re not nervous or excited probably as much as we are,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said Friday. “Anybody on any given night — a team can be off, foul trouble, injury, some team can be really on, so you just don’t know.”
The Cougars (28-6) beat No. 5 seed North Carolina State and No. 4 Nebraska to become only the third No. 12 to reach the regional semifinals. The other two 12s were beaten soundly — Kansas, 93-63 by Notre Dame last year, and San Francisco, 72-44 by UConn in 1996.
The Huskies haven’t played a game decided by fewer than 11 points since they lost 61-59 to Notre Dame in last year’s Big East championship game. They haven’t lost since.
Huskies center Stefanie Dolson said she’s not surprised she and her teammates have been so dominant, largely because coach Geno Auriemma finds ways to challenge them every day. No extra motivation is needed this time of year, she said.
“It’s the tournament, and every team is going to play their best, and you know that you lose, you go home,” Dolson said. “We don’t look at what they’re ranked or what their season was like. We just go out there and play as hard as we can and focus on our game and not the team we’re playing.”
Judkins said the Cougars will have to play their best game to win. “And they can play their worst game. That’s what we’re hoping for,” he said.
Five things to know about the BYU-UConn game:
LONG WAY TO GO: Impressive as UConn’s 42-gamer is, the Huskies have a long way to go to match their previous two longest streaks. They won an NCAA record 90 straight from 2009-10 and 70 in a row from 2001-03.
IMPOSING COUGAR: Jennifer Hamson, BYU’s 6-foot-7 center, is averaging a nation-leading 4.2 blocks a game. She’s blocked as many as nine in a game.
“She’s extremely tall and is going to change a lot of shots and probably block a lot of shots,” the 6-4 Dolson said. “We have to make sure we keep attacking her and, for me, setting a lot of ball screens and bring her out of the paint so our guards can drive it in there.”
STOP EATON, STOP BYU?: Lexi Eaton is averaging 17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists for the Cougars. Eaton followed her 25-point game against North Carolina State in the first round with 15 points in Monday’s upset of Nebraska.
“No. 21 is kind of the engine that makes them go,” UConn’s Bria Hartley said.
A PEARL FROM THURL: BYU’s Morgan Bailey is a niece of Thurl Bailey, one of the stars of the 1983 North Carolina State team that upset top-seeded Houston in the NCAA men’s championship game. Thurl has texted Morgan and her teammates to share the story of the ‘83 Wolfpack.
Like that team, BYU is hot at the right time, having won 12 of its last 13.
“I think we’ve been underrated the whole season, so it’s been really nice to come to such an incredible tournament and be able to be playing our best basketball,” guard Kim Beeston said. “I really do think we’ve peaked at the perfect time.”
NO HOME TEAM: BYU’s 80-76 win over Nebraska in Los Angeles ended the possibility of there being a true home team in Lincoln. Auriemma said there is undue pressure on teams that are put in a position to have to win in the first and second round so they can play at home in regionals. Auriemma has long said he prefers neutral courts for all tournament games.
“Yeah, it’s a shame. I feel for them,” he said of Nebraska. “But BYU deserves to be here, and if they didn’t deserve to be here, they wouldn’t be here. For every disappointment, there’s a group of people celebrating.”