Everyone knew coming into the 2016 NCAA Tournament that eventually, they would have to go up against UConn if anyone other than the Huskies had plans of winning the National Championship. Saying the road to the Final Four goes through Connecticut takes on very literal meaning this year, as UConn is the number one overall seed in the Bridgeport Region.
The Huskies advanced to the Sweet 16 after two dominating victories on their home floor, beating Robert Morris by 52 points followed by a 46-point win over Duquesne. As if UConn was not already a tough matchup for just about every team in the country, their "Big 3" of Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson are clicking on all cylinders after each scoring at least 20 points against the Dukes.
"I’ve been saying this pretty much all year," UConn Coach Geno Auriemma said after his team’s win over Duquesne. "Whenever the games get bigger, and the stakes get higher as season goes along, our three seniors play even better than they normally play, and they play great most of the time. (Monday) was just a magnificent performance by the three of them."
UConn is 21-1 all-time in Regional Semifinal games, and, as I am sure you’ve heard by now, are in pursuit of their fourth straight National Title. First things first, the Huskies are looking to get to their 11th straight Regional Final, but will have to get past a pesky Mississippi State team waiting for them in the Sweet 16.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs upset fourth-seeded Michigan State to advance to the Regional Semifinal for the second time in school history, and were led by Victoria Vivians who scored 24 points in her team’s win. With the win over the Spartans, Mississippi State set a new program record for wins in a season (28).
"I really proud of our accomplishments," Bulldogs Coach Vic Schaefer said. "This year has been a real challenge at times, but we have got some real competitive kids. Competitive spirit is something that’s always stood out with them, and they're tough. I don't know if you would have told me in October when we started that we would be here at 28-7, I would have taken it probably and said, ‘see you in March.’"
The second Regional Semifinal occurring at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport Saturday features the two and three seeds. The Texas Longhorns are looking to make their deepest run in the tournament since 2003 when they made the Final Four.
The UCLA Bruins will be waiting for the Longhorns in Bridgeport, and are red hot as a team, having won ten of their last 12 games. Those two Bruins’ losses both came to Pac-12 foe Oregon State, who is still alive as a two-seed in the Dallas Region.
UCLA is coming off a close win over the South Florida Bulls in the Round of 32, advancing the Bruins to their first regional semifinal since 1999. Jordin Canada had a big fourth quarter in her last game, scoring 17 of her 19 points in the last 10 minutes. Canada will need another big performance to overcome the Longhorn’s size inside.
"(Canada’s) game has matured in front of the nation's eyes," UCLA Coach Cori Close said. "I think something that she really learned last year is that if I really want to reach my potential, there has to be sacrifice and I'm going to have to be really proactive in my own development, and she has done exactly that. It's really fun to watch."
Texas handled Missouri in their last game, beating the Tigers by double digits to get to the second weekend of the tournament. Ariel Atkins came up big for the Longhorns in that game, scoring a team-high 22 points while also grabbing seven rebounds. Texas coach Karen Aston knows limiting turnovers will be one of the keys against the Bruins.
"(UCLA) presents a lot of challenges," Aston said. "It's a challenge to stay locked in mentally, to get back every possession and make sure that you're taking care of transition, taking care of the basketball. Their guards are very active, and they create a lot of deflections, and it creates opportunities for them to do what they do best."