When the UConn womenâs basketball team takes the floor at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas for its NCAA Tournament opener Sunday night, it will be a new experience for all but three Huskies.
The last time coach Geno Auriemma put out a team that had fewer players with NCAA Tournament experience was in 1989, when it was brand new to them all. Their game against La Salle at the Storrs Field House was the first of what is a run of 32 straight NCAA berths.
âI did say we have a lot of young players, and they donât know enough to know what they donât know,â Auriemma said. âTheyâre going into this tournament for the first time and they donât know what is out there. They donât know what it means. They donât know what itâs all about. Theyâve read about it and heard about it. Obviously itâs something they all wanted to be in. What do they say, ignorance is bliss, right? I hope weâre full of bliss. I hope we have enough bliss to last us six games.â
UConn is the No. 2 seed overall and the top seed in the River Walk Regional. The Big East champion Huskies (24-1) will begin their bid for a 12th national championship and a 13th consecutive Final Four berth Sunday night when they take on Big South champion and 16th-seeded High Point (22-6) in a first-round game.
Juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa were part of the Huskiesâ run to the 2019 Final Four. Redshirt junior Evina Westbrook played in three NCAA Tournament games in her two years at Tennessee.
Sophomores Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat have had to wait a year for their first NCAA Tournament experience after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 event a week before it was set to begin. The other seven players on UConnâs 12-player roster are freshmen.
UConn will be without Auriemma for the game against High Point and its second-round game if it advances as the Hall of Fame coach tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday. Associate head coach Chris Dailey will be charge and the Huskies are 10-0 in the games Auriemma has missed since they arrived in Storrs.
âBeing one of the leaders Iâm making sure nothing changes,â Westbrook said. âWeâre reiterating that with everyone on the team, Coach may not be here, but we prepared with him so many times that we know what to do. Weâve talked to him about it, and he trusts us so weâre excited to get going.â
UConn enters the NCAA Tournament with momentum following its solid performances at the Big East Tournament.
The Huskies thrived in the bubble at Mohegan Sun Arena and hope to again in the bubble that theyâll be a part of in San Antonio.
âWeâre excited to just play,â Williams said. âIâm really excited for the freshmen and sophomores that they can experience the tournament. It is almost two years since I experienced a tournament so it is pretty new for everybody.
âI can tell them my experience but it is going to be different this year due to COVID. They did a great job with the Big East Tournament so I think theyâll be fine with the NCAA Tournament. I would tell them there are going to be a lot of people in the stands and donât let that get to you, but there wonât be a lot of people there. It will just be like a conference game really.â
For Paige Bueckers, this is what she came to UConn for.
Sheâs enjoying arguably the best freshman season in program history. The guard joined Maya Moore as the only UConn freshmen to win Big East Player of the Year. Later this month itâs likely sheâll be named an All-American like Moore was in 2008. But Bueckers has never been concerned about individual honors and maybe thatâs why she gets so many. Sheâd like to do something Moore couldnât do in 2008, get the national championship.
âI donât think we try to listen much to outside noise at all,â Bueckers said. âI know my main goal and the teamâs main goal is to win. Whether that is the first game of the season or the last game of the season, that has always been our main goal. The expectation to win is something we put on ourselves. We donât listen too much to all the outside expectations at all.
âWe donât care how we do it or who performs. All we care about is winning a championship. We have a real tunnel vision mindset. Whatever we have to do, weâre going to try to do it to the best of our ability to win. That is my mindset and the whole teamâs mindset going into the tournament. Obviously we want to have fun and enjoy the moments. Weâve been working our whole lives for moments like these so itâs important to go out there and have fun while playing to the best of our abilities.â
Baylor is seeded second in the River Walk Regional followed by Tennessee, Kentucky, and Iowa.
Stanford is the overall No. 1 seed followed by UConn, North Carolina State, and South Carolina. So if the seedings hold the Huskies would play the Wolfpack in the national semifinals.
Sunday nightâs opener will be the Huskiesâ 142nd NCAA Tournament game (121-20) but their first without Auriemma on the sidelines.
âBelieve me, if Iâm going to worry, Iâm going to worry about the other team and the fact that theyâre really good,â Auriemma said. âIâm going to worry, âAre our kids ready mentally to play because itâs their first time?â Iâm not going to worry whether or not our coaching staff has prepared them and will coach them in a championship manner.
âWe just have to do what weâve been doing all year, roll with it and see where it takes us.â