No. 1 Connecticut smashed No. 5 Mississippi State by 60 points in Bridgeport, Connecticut on Saturday afternoon, setting a NCAA Tournament record for margin of victory in the Sweet 16.
Just minutes after the Huskies demoralized their latest victim, the No. 2 Longhorns took the court, determined to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in 13 years.
With a 72-64 victory over No. 3 UCLA, Texas did just that. The reward? The Longhorns have a date with Connecticut tonight at 6 p.m. with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Connecticut has reached the Final Four in eight consecutive seasons and is eying its fourth straight championship, which would be a school record for the historic program.
“I think any time you get to this point in the season, it’s exactly where every player wants to be from the time school starts in September to today,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Everything you work for is to put yourself in this situation and to be able to play for a National Championship.”
In his 31 seasons as head coach at UConn, Auriemma has reached the Final Four 16 times, winning ten NCAA Championships. Texas head coach Karen Aston is bidding for her first Final Four appearance in her fourth season in Austin.
“There’s no denying that all of us in the coaching ranks have an enormous amount of respect for not only wins, but the way his teams play the game,” Aston said of Auriemma. “I think when you’re a coach, that’s what you look at more than trying to pay attention to how many wins or championships he’s had.”
Basketball is more than just coaching, and Auriemma knows that. After beating the Bulldogs 98-38 Saturday, Auriemma made it clear what accounted for the large point differential.
“It’s not much difference between me and Vic,” Auriemma said of Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer. “There’s a lot of difference between his players and my players. So at this time of the year, if you’ve got the right players, you just have to get them in the right mindset.”
Connecticut senior forward Breanna Stewart is averaging 20.3 points per game in the tournament. Texas senior center Imani Boyette said she can’t stop Stewart on her own.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can do that’s going to change her game,” Boyette said. “I think it’s going to be a team effort on the defensive end.”
Texas has played UConn before — a 105-54 defeat for the Longhorns in last year’s Sweet 16. A game that, despite the crushing defeat, might help Boyette and Texas slow down Stewart and the Huskies tonight.
“I think the experience from last year and trying not to have that deer in headlights look that, obviously, everyone seems to have against them hopefully will help us,” Aston said.