Kentucky-UConn Preview

Geno Auriemma rarely has thought a loss was a good thing for his

team.

Yet the Hall of Fame coach says he thinks Connecticut’s two

defeats in late February may have saved the Huskies’ season.

Ever since losing to St. John’s at home on senior night and

falling to Notre Dame nine days later, UConn (32-4) has been

unstoppable. The Huskies cruised to the Big East tournament

championship and have rolled through their first three NCAA

tournament games.

”I’ve said in the past we’ve had unbelievable players where it

wouldn’t be good to lose going into the NCAA tournament,” Auriemma

said. ”With this team, those two losses at the end of the year –

for the first time in my career – were really good losses for us. I

may not have thought it that night, but now I really do.”

Now the top seed is one victory away from reaching the Final

Four for the fifth straight season. UConn will play No. 2 seed

Kentucky (28-6) on Tuesday night in the Kingston regional

final.

It’s been a strange season for the Huskies. Coming into the

season, Auriemma didn’t think this team could make a run at the

Final Four or an eighth national championship. With the loss of

Maya Moore to graduation, the Huskies had a lot of questions about

themselves.

”I think we spent most of the season trying to prove a lot of

people wrong,” senior Tiffany Hayes said. ”I just think it speaks

on the growth of this team and how we’ve grown up from the

beginning of the season and gotten to this point that we’re at

right now. And if we win this game tomorrow, I think it will speak

loudly for us as a team to be able to say that we could go that

far, we could become a better team than we were at the beginning of

the season.”

To get back to the Final Four, Auriemma knows that one of his

players will have to step up. Last season Moore had 28 points in

the regional final win over Duke. This year he’s not sure who it

will be.

”It could be anybody in this case because there isn’t one

person that dominates our offense like there was last year or the

previous five or six years. The interesting part for us is to see

who does take on that role. It could be a combination of people,”

he said.

Sophomore guard Bria Hartley had 20 points in the regional

semifinal win over Penn State. Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had

a great first game against Prairie View. There’s also center

Stefanie Dolson and Hayes. Any of them could potentially have huge

games.

”I think a lot of us are capable of doing it, but if it needs

to be me, I’ll be the one to step up,” said Hayes. ”If it needs

to be Stef, I’m sure she’ll be willing to step up as well. So

whoever needs to take on that role, I’m sure they’ll step up and do

it.”

While making the Final Four is nothing new for the Huskies,

Kentucky is trying to make its first trip to the national

semifinals. The second-seeded Wildcats have reached the regional

finals in two of the last three seasons.

Three years ago when the Wildcats were picked 11th in the

Southeastern Conference, coach Matthew Mitchell put a sign outside

the locker room with the logo of the Final Four. His team came

within one game of reaching that goal, losing to Oklahoma in the

regional final.

This season a photo of the Denver Final Four logo adorns the

outside of the Wildcats’ locker room. They are once again one

victory away from reaching it. Getting that win over the Huskies

would be monumental for the school, which has always been one of

the elite men’s basketball powerhouses. The Kentucky men are

already in the Final Four.

”Kentucky’s a very special place to coach basketball because

the men have over a course of a century built a tradition that’s

quite unlike anywhere else,” Mitchell said. ”It’s a brand name in

college basketball that signifies excellence.”

The two women’s teams haven’t played much. Connecticut has won

two of the three meetings, with the last one coming in 1999.

Mitchell has a little familiarity with the Huskies since he got his

start as a grad assistant for Tennessee in 1999-2000.

Mitchell is aware of the aura surrounding the Huskies.

”Anybody who says it doesn’t exist is living in la-la land,”

Mitchell said. ”They aren’t in reality and Connecticut has earned

the mystique, Tennessee has earned the mystique. I think you’re

silly if you try to act like there’s not a mystique around

Connecticut. We have a huge challenge.”

An interesting subplot to the game is Kentucky star forward

Samarie Walker, who transferred from Connecticut in the middle of

last season. After sitting out the first half of this year because

of NCAA transfer rules, she’s been a huge factor for the Wildcats.

She’s had back-to-back double-doubles, including a 16-point,

12-rebound effort in the regional semifinal win over Gonzaga.

”The kids that are the most successful in college are the ones

that commit themselves 100 percent with their heart and soul and

everything they got,” Auriemma said. ”They go into it with a

sense of `I’m going to be great here.”’

”Samarie didn’t have that at Connecticut. It became evident

early on that she didn’t have that at Connecticut. The success

she’s having at Kentucky is that she has all those things in place

right now. That’s what you would hope for any kid,” he said.