Lincoln, Neb. • Friday must’ve felt very much like a ceremonial pat on the back for BYU.
Great run. You had a great season. Too bad about tomorrow.
The early obituaries are almost certainly in. Most don’t expect the 12-seeded Cougars to have a chance on Saturday. The media milling around No. 1 Connecticut’s practice dwarfed that of BYU, which is presumed to lay down for the undefeated Huskies to continue a run to their ninth national title.
The Cougars wouldn’t be in Lincoln, wouldn’t be in the Sweet 16 if they had heeded expectations. Off the heels of two big upsets, they’re a confident bunch.
But even they know this: It will take their best game of the season — and maybe one of UConn’s poorer games — to pull off what coach Jeff Judkins called “like the biggest upset ever” early in the week.
“Being a 12 seed and playing some amazing teams, it’s hard to look past the numbers,” junior forward Morgan Bailey said. “You see UConn, and you know they’re a powerhouse. We’re just going in with no fear.”
Even among Goliaths, this year’s Huskies team stands a head taller.
UConn enters the matchup looking to win its 43rd straight game. They’ve beaten opponents this year by an average of 36 points per game, including 19-point win over Stanford, an 18-point win over Maryland, an 11-point win over Baylor and a 20-point win over Louisville — all top 10-ranked teams at the time.
No opponent has come within single digits of Geno Auriemma’s latest indomitable squad. Looking at their national rankings in key statistical categories is to see a rarely interrupted column of No. 1s. The team is led by potential player of the year Breanna Stewart, a 6-foot-4 star who moves like a guard.
The notion that BYU could be the first to upend the Huskies comes close to heresy.
“Everybody knows you have to go through UConn to win a championship right now,” Judkins said. “You play them now, or you play them in the championship — you’re going to eventually have to meet them.”
But the Cougars are a team unafraid to dream. Coming from the West Coast Conference, BYU made its seeding look silly with a double-digit win over NC State and a big victory over Big 10 champ Nebraska.
They have the roles and diversity of a NCAA Tournament team: shot-blocker Jen Hamson, penetrator Lexi Eaton, physical post player Bailey and a number of guards who can nail 3-pointers. While the rest of the world may take BYU lightly, UConn isn’t.
“From a playing standpoint, if you ask anyone on our team what seed BYU is, they won’t know,” Auriemma said. “They just know BYU beat Nebraska, and now you have to play them. So at this time of year, don’t get caught up in numbers.”
The Cougars are also trying not to get caught up in numbers: their odds to win, the statistical dominance of the Huskies, the numbers under their jersey lettering. Judkins said one of his biggest concerns is that BYU may defeat itself by being intimidated.
On Friday, the players were far from counting themselves out — even if they’re only among a few who don’t.
“More than anything, I think that we just want to go out and prove that we can play with the big dogs,” Kim Beeston said. “I think we didn’t necessarily know that we’d be in the Sweet 16, but we knew we could come in and make some noise in this tournament. That’s what we’re doing.”
No. 12 BYU vs. No. 1 UConn
O Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.
Tipoff • Saturday, 2:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
Radio • BYUradio.org
Records • BYU 28-6; UConn 36-0
Series history • UConn leads 2-0
Last meeting • UConn 96, BYU 47 (Nov. 25, 2008)
About the Cougars • BYU features the nation’s top shot-blocker in 6-foot-7 senior center Jen Hamson, who has 141 swats this season. … The Cougars have matched the best finish in school history, last going to a Sweet 16 in 2002, and will go for the program’s first Elite Eight.
About the Huskies • UConn has won every game this season by double digits, and has won 42 straight dating back to last year’s Big East Tournament.