STORRS - The UConn women’s basketball team went to Albany on the road to the 2015 Final Four, beating Texas and Dayton at the Times Union Center to advance to the national semifinals in Tampa.
The Huskies’ road to the 2017 Final Four and a shot at an unprecedented fifth consecutive national championship will start by going through the University of Albany.
Unbeaten UConn was given the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and the top seed for the Bridgeport Regional on Monday. The Huskies, who are making their 29th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance having received the American Athletic Conference’s automatic bid, will entertain the America East tournament champion Great Danes in the first round Saturday at 11 a.m. at Gampel Pavilion.
The UConn-Albany winner will face either No. 8 Syracuse or ninth-seeded Iowa State Monday for a spot in the Sweet 16 on March 25 at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena.
“It is what it is, and in the Tournament you have to beat some really good teams,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “There’s a bunch of them in our bracket. There’s a bunch of them in every bracket. Everyone thinks they have the hardest bracket and they’re probably right.”
The Huskies (32-0) are a No. 1 regional seed for the 11th consecutive season and the 20th time in the last 24 seasons. They are the overall No. 1 for the fourth straight year.
Duke, the runnerup to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, was given the No. 2 seed in the Bridgeport Regional. The Blue Devils are the only team to record a NCAA Tournament win over UConn in Connecticut since 1993, defeating the Huskies 63-61 in the 2006 Elite Eight in Bridgeport.
Big Ten champion Maryland is the No. 3 seed. UConn held off the Terrapins 87-81 on Dec. 29 in College Park, Maryland. UCLA out of the Pac-12 is the No. 4 seed.
The other No. 1 seeds are Notre Dame (Lexington, Kentucky), Baylor (Oklahoma City), and South Carolina (Stockton, California). The Bridgeport Regional winner will face the Oklahoma City Regional winner in one national semifinal March 31 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
UConn owns wins over the other three tops seeds.
“It just comes down to the best team at the end of three weekends is going to be the national champion,” Auriemma said. “That’s the way it is. We’ve won the national championship being a No. 1 seed and we’ve lost the national championship as a No. 1 seed. You still got to win, you still have to play.
“When you have the schedule we’ve had, it’s hard to get a bracket that doesn’t have at the top a bunch of teams you haven’t already played. I’m not surprised, Duke, Maryland, UCLA ... I’m not surprised one iota. Is that the best 2, 3, 4 in the brackets? I don’t know. I’m sure everyone thinks their 2-3-4 is the toughest. The biggest surprise to me was West Virginia at 6. They’re way better than a 6-seed. I saw what they did (in the Big 12 tournament), now that they’re healthy.”
Out of the Huskies 13 non-conference opponents, 12 are in the NCAA Tournament field, the only miss being Nebraska.
Katie Lou Samuelson was excited when UConn was the first team of the 64 announced. But the sophomore guard had to wait patiently until the last game shown to see where her sister, Karlie, and Stanford would play. The Cardinal, an automatic qualifier as Pac-12 tournament champion, open with New Mexico State in Manhattan, Kansas.
“Last year they announced Stanford early and this year they were the last team to be announced,” Samuelson said. “It was exciting to see who we would be facing. Last year I think I was less concerned with who was in our bracket. We have a lot of tough competition in our region. We’ve already played Maryland so we know if we get to a point where we play them again it will be a real tough game. Any game we play we’re going to have to be ready to go.”
Albany (21-11) is making its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance as the America East automatic qualifier and the first under coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, who took the job after Katie Abrahamson-Henderson left to take over at Central Florida last offseason.
The Great Danes have won six in a row and 12 out of 13 since falling to 9-10 following a loss to Maine on Jan. 22. They were the No. 2 seed for the America East Tournament and knocked off Vermont 65-45 and Hartford 67-65 to advance to last Friday’s final. Playing at home, Albany defeated No. 4 Maine 66-50.
Two players average in double figures for the Great Danes - senior guard Imani Tate (19.1) and junior wing Jessica Fequiere (12.4).
The teams have no common opponents this season. UConn won the only meeting with Albany 78-44 at the Hartford Civic Center on Dec. 29, 2005.
A game with Syracuse would be a rematch of last April’s national championship game won by the Huskies 82-51 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. East Hartford native and Capital Prep graduate Desiree Elmore is a freshman guard with the Orange.
“It’s always fun to play against them,” UConn guard Kia Nurse said. “But we have to play against the guards at Albany first.”
Iowa State is coached by Bill Fennelly, who is one of the three people to coach against the Huskies in the NCAA Tournament with two different teams. In 1991, he was the coach at Toledo when UConn won its first NCAA game by beating the Rockets 81-80 at Gampel Pavilion. He also coached the Cyclones to an upset of UConn in the 1999 Mideast Regional semifinals. UConn won the last meeting with Iowa State 74-36 in the 2010 Sweet 16 in Dayton, Ohio.
The others to coach against the Huskies in the Tournament with two different teams are Gail Goestenkors (2006 Duke, 2008 Texas) and Joanne P. McCallie (1995 Maine, 2010 Duke).
Bridgeport is hosting a regional for the second straight year and third time overall. UConn could get to Dallas without leaving the state.
“Sometimes being home is OK and sometimes being at home is not OK,” Auriemma said. “There are a lot of distractions being at home. At NCAA Tournament time, I worry about being at home. I’ll be happy that school is starting up again next week.”
And the players are happy they know what’s ahead of them.
“We have to make sure we’re in the right mindset,” Samuelson said. “We’re all excited to get games started because it seems like we’ve been practicing for awhile.”