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UConn Opens With Robert Morris In Its Quest To Make History By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 15, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – Winning the national championship is annually the ultimate goal for the UConn women’s basketball team. And to this point in their careers, star seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck have been perfect.

Now with six more wins, they will help the top-ranked Huskies accomplish something that has never been done in the history of Division I women’s college basketball – win four straight national championships. UConn, who is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament for a record 11th time, will begin its championship quest Saturday against 16th-seeded Robert Morris in the first round of the Bridgeport regional at Gampel Pavilion (11 a.m.; ESPN2).

“It’s our goal and it’s what we came here to do,’’ Stewart said. ``This is our last opportunity to go after what we want, the national championship. That being said, we’re not looking ahead. We’re staying focused on what’s next. This is it. It’s not like, ‘We have 10 games left’ or whatever. We have to win to move on. It’s crazy how fast it’s gone by.”

The Huskies (32-0) have twice won three straight national championships (2002-04, 2013-15). Tennessee has also won three straight (1996-98).

With a victory over Robert Morris, UConn would meet eighth-seeded Seton Hall (23-8) or ninth-seeded Duquesne (27-5) Monday in the second round.

``I feel if we don’t get that (fourth straight national championship) we’re just going to feel as if we didn’t live up to our standard and our own expectations,’’ Tuck said. ``And the past years have definitely added to that, where each year we’ve ended with a national championship. So that’s what we’re used to doing and so anything less than just isn’t good enough.’’

UConn, which has won 69 straight games, received a No. 1 seed for the 10th straight year and the 19th time overall (all in the last 23 seasons).

The Huskies, who have won a record 10 national championships, are making their 28th straight NCAA tournament appearance (103-17, NCAA-best .858). It is the third longest active streak and the third longest overall behind Tennessee (35) and Stanford (29).

Robert Morris (20-12) is making its second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years and its fourth overall. The Colonials, who claimed the Northeast Conference tournament championship Sunday with a 56-51 win over Sacred Heart, have lost their previous three NCAA tournament games by an average of 42.0 points.

``They say that you usually finish close to where you get picked to finish,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So people are obviously putting us in a position where if we do what we’re capable of doing then I think everybody envisions being in the Final Four because that’s the goal. But they don’t call it March Madness for nothing. Stuff happens along the way. And I don’t care how many games we’ve won in the past. And I don’t care how many championships we’ve won in the past. I just got a text from somebody saying, `Are you even excited anymore during this (selection) day?’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m excited.’ Because when I see the bracket all I keep thinking of is, ‘How are we going to beat those guys?’

``It is an exciting time of the year. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the first time, 10th time or whatever. This is the time of the year when as a coach you really, really feel kind of energized.’’

The Huskies could potentially face fourth-seeded Michigan State (24-8) in the regional semifinals and either second-seeded Texas (28-4) or third-seeded UCLA (24-8) in the regional final at Webster Bank Arena March 26 (11:30 a.m. or 2 p.m.) and 28 (7 p.m.), respectively.

South Carolina (31-1), Notre Dame (31-1) and Baylor (33-1) also earned a No. 1 seed. The Gamecocks, the No. 2 overall seed, will be competing in the Sioux Falls regional. The Irish were assigned to the Lexington regional. The Lady Bears head the Dallas regional.

Baylor is on the same side of the bracket as UConn, looming as a potential opponent in the national semifinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis April 3.

``It’s been a long four years and it’s starting to wind down,’’ Jefferson said. ``You’ve got maybe six games left and you’ve really got to come out every day and treat it like it’s your last because pretty soon it’s going to be.’’

UConn and Notre Dame are on target to meet in the tournament final for the third straight season. The Huskies defeated the Irish 63-53 last season in Tampa.

Overall, the rivals have squared off in the national semifinals or the final in each of the previous five seasons. UConn has won three straight games in this span.

``Each year we’ve played them so it would be kind of weird not to,’’ Tuck said. ``And they’re a really great team so we know they’re going to make it far and you know they’re going to play really well. So we just have make sure we make it far too.’’

South Florida was the only other team from The American to make the Field of 64. And, to the surprise of the Huskies, the Bulls are seeded sixth in their region for the second straight year.

South Florida lost to Louisville in the second round a year ago.

``There’s four regions. There’s 64 teams. And there’s only one other team in our league and they end up in our bracket for the second year in a row,’’ Auriemma said. ``That doesn’t make any sense. I’m sure there’s a reason. And I’m sure it’s a good reason. And I’m sure if they explained it to me I’d go, `Ok, I get that.’ But looking at it from the outside in … You could’ve point them anywhere. I could see if we have seven teams… Like in the old Big East days when we had eight teams in the (tournament) and you go, `Well, there’s only so many places we can put all of you.’ One other team? You have to play them four times or they have to play us four times? But let’s put it this way … Let’s hope both of us are playing the fourth time. That would be pretty good.’’

Over the next three weeks, the Huskies will also be looking to extend their NCAA record by reaching the Final Four for the ninth straight season and the 17th time overall. An 11th national championship would move Auriemma one ahead of legendary former UCLA men’s coach John Wooden for the most in the history of college basketball.

There is much at stake for UConn in this tournament. However, as has been the case in the past, the players are unfazed by any outside pressure to succeed.

``I don’t think we focus too much on the outside and what they’re saying just because we know that’s our goal,’’ Tuck said. ``So we don’t need to get confirmation, I guess, from other people. We know that we want to win four and we know that that’s been our goal for a long time. So I think we try to think about it at the same time and at same time not really think about it because we can’t jump ahead to thinking about getting to the Final Four because we have to win these games first.’’

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