Stepping back under a brighter spotlight and temporarily off of a tired American Athletic Conference trail dotted with helpless opponents, the UConn women will take the court Monday at the Erwin Center, helping promote the sport it dominates.
The top-ranked and undefeated Huskies play a nonconference game against No. 7 Texas. A crowd of about 12,000 is expected, one of the largest in Longhorns' history, and the game is on national TV (ESPN2). This is an event, really, after a series of games that look and feel more like run-throughs, something with a little buzz following recent ho-hum victories over the Houstons and East Carolinas of the world."This isn't the first time we've been in this situation, where a team is fired up to see us, but it poses a different challenge every time," UConn senior forward Gabby Williams said. "It's not something we take lightly, and I think we get excited for these games because they don't come around often."
Geno Auriemma works as many high-profile non-conference games into the schedule as he can, and more are earned on neutral courts every March in the NCAA tournament and April at the Final Four. UConn has reached a national semifinal 10 years in a row, the destination for a postseason journey that's worth preparing for as soon as the ball goes up in November.
This Texas two-step, with Saturday's breezy victory at Houston out of the way, has a couple March Madness ingredients -- logistically, in that it's a Monday game following a single day to regroup, and in an opponent that has Final Four aspirations, too.
"That's the conversation we actually had after the game [against Kansas Saturday], and that's how you have to look at this -- like you are in a regional tournament," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "You have one day in between and you're preparing for someone that's probably the best -- either playing the best that you've played against all year; or they are the best, probably, that you've played all year. You benefit from it, not necessary as much in the moment as what you take from it down the line if you're fortunate enough to be in postseason and in these one-day turnarounds. That's the value."
UConn has never lost an AAC game -- though, to be fair, the Huskies have operated nearly unscathed in nonleague games, also, since the conference's inception before the 2013-14 season. UConn is 167-2 overall in those four-plus seasons.
Still, UConn is forever in search of games that provide more of a challenge, like this one. Victories over Notre Dame, Maryland and UCLA are in the books. Games remain against the defending national champion, ninth-ranked South Carolina (Feb. 1 on the road), and No. 3 Louisville (Feb. 12 at Gampel Pavilion), which routed No. 2 Notre Dame Saturday at home.
"You just get out and play, in somewhat of a [technically] meaningless game," Auriemma said of nonconference matchups. "If you're in a conference where you're trying to win a championship, this game means nothing. It's just a game. And it generally has nothing to do with NCAA seedings, either. Nobody's seedings are going to get hurt. Somebody can help themselves. ... There's absolutely no downside. Yeah, [people say], 'You don't have any competition in your league.' Well, some teams have no competition in their league, either. They just don't want to admit it."
Texas' losses came Dec. 10 at Tennessee, currently ranked No. 6, and Wednesday at TCU. The Longhorns (14-2) rebounded with 79-62 home victory Saturday over Kansas.
"A little trouble getting our motors running, feeling sorry for ourselves, whatever you want to call it," Aston said of trailing Kansas at halftime before taking control in the third quarter. "Some people would call it a hangover."
Of playing UConn, Aston said, "I definitely want [players] to be excited. It's a tremendous opportunity to showcase women's basketball, first and foremost. The fact that we both agreed to play this game in the midst of conference play, on national television, on a holiday [Martin Luther King Jr. Day]. ... What I want our team to do is just embrace that opportunity to showcase the game, and compete against the best. Right now, I don't think anybody would argue against that. It gives our kids a chance to lace up their shoes and compete against a teams that is really, really good."
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UConn is 7-0 all-time in the series. What would a victory mean to Texas?
"Confidence," Aston said.
The Longhorns are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, hitting the glass well from all positions, and have a trio of electric guards in Ariel Atkins, Lashann Higgs and Brooke McCarty. Aston thinks the best way to compete with UConn is to play efficient offense -- shooting a high percentage and limiting turnovers in order to keep the Huskies out of transition.
The last time a crowd of 10,000-plus attended a women's basketball game at the Erwin Center was Feb. 12, 2007 -- 11,245 with Oklahoma the guest.
Texas has, Auriemma said, "at least as athletic a roster as there is in the country. I think it's going to be a crazy, crazy environment. We've got our hands full, I know that. Hands full with rebounding, hands full with athletic ability. That's going to be a tough game."
This article is written by Mike Anthony from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.