March 20, 2009
(AP) - Connecticut enters this NCAA tournament as the overwhelming favorite to win it all after rolling through all 33 of its opponents by double-digit margins.
The Huskies don't expect the final six potential victories to be that easy, though it would be hard to imagine them struggling in the opening round as they host 16th-seeded Vermont at Gampel Pavilion on Sunday.
The wire-to-wire No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll that finished two votes shy of being a unanimous No. 1 the entire season, Connecticut (33-0) has won its games by an average of more than 31 points. The Huskies saved some of their better play for games against elite competition, routing No. 4 Oklahoma by 28, winning by 30 at then-No. 2 North Carolina and twice beating a top-10 Louisville team by a combined 67 points, including 75-36 in the Big East tournament final on March 10.
Despite all those superlatives, UConn insists the NCAA tournament is an entirely separate entity and is expecting every opponent to bring its best effort.
"That gap just ... closes when the NCAA tournament starts," UConn senior point guard Renee Montgomery said. "Everyone is completely different at tournament time. A team we might have beaten by 28 today or two days before the NCAA tournament, it's completely different."
The Huskies are led by sophomore Maya Moore, who averaged 19.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists en route to being the Big East player of the year and tournament's most outstanding player. Montgomery is contributing 15.8 points and a team-high 5.2 assists per game while junior center Tina Charles averages 16.1 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Coach Geno Auriemma has dealt with the burden of being undefeated entering the NCAA tournament, having led UConn to championships in 1995 and 2002. His Huskies also sported a perfect record entering the 1997 tournament but lost star Shea Ralph to a knee injury and fell to Tennessee in the regional final.
Accordingly, Moore is setting out trying to make history before looking back at being a part of it.
"All that - best ever, history - we can look back on later," Moore said. "But I think if we take our eyes off our goal, that's when you do lose before you're supposed to, so we're just focused on the next game."
Vermont (21-11) is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000 but will be hard-pressed to get its first victory. The Catamounts overcame a 12-point deficit to defeat America East regular-season champion Boston University 74-66 in the conference tournament final, and they've won nine of 10 entering this game.
A pair of Canadian guards - Courtnay Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos - will try to give Vermont the chance for a monumental upset. The pair combined for 106 of Vermont's 168 3-pointers, averaging 14.9 and 14.2 points, respectively. Pilypaitis was the most outstanding player of the America East tournament after averaging 20.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists in the three victories.
Either Alissa Sheftic or Tonya Young likely will draw the unenviable task of trying to slow Moore for the Catamounts, who held opponents to 36.7 percent shooting - good for 12th among Division I teams.
Connecticut has won all eight games between the schools, but the teams haven't met since 1993. The winner of this game will play No. 8 seed Florida or ninth-seeded Temple in the second round Tuesday.