By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
KINGSTON, R.I. (AP) _ Geno Auriemma rarely has thought a loss was a good thing for his team.
Yet the Hall of Fame coach says he thinks Connecticut’s two defeats in late February may have saved the Huskies’ season.
Ever since losing to St. John’s at home on senior night and falling to Notre Dame nine days later, UConn (32-4) has been unstoppable. The Huskies cruised to the Big East tournament championship and have rolled through their first three NCAA tournament games.
“I’ve said in the past we’ve had unbelievable players where it wouldn’t be good to lose going into the NCAA tournament,” Auriemma said. “With this team, those two losses at the end of the year– for the first time in my career –were really good losses for us. I may not have thought it that night, but now I really do.”
Now the top seed is one victory away from reaching the Final Four for the fifth straight season. UConn will play No. 2 seed Kentucky (28-6) on Tuesday night in the Kingston regional final.
It’s been a strange season for the Huskies. Coming into the season, Auriemma didn’t think this team could make a run at the Final Four or an eighth national championship. With the loss of Maya Moore to graduation, the Huskies had a lot of questions about themselves.
“I think we spent most of the season trying to prove a lot of people wrong,” senior Tiffany Hayes said. “I just think it speaks on the growth of this team and how we’ve grown up from the beginning of the season and gotten to this point that we’re at right now. And if we win this game tomorrow, I think it will speak loudly for us as a team to be able to say that we could go that far, we could become a better team than we were at the beginning of the season.”
To get back to the Final Four, Auriemma knows that one of his players will have to step up. Last season Moore had 28 points in the regional final win over Duke. This year he’s not sure who it will be.
“It could be anybody in this case because there isn’t one person that dominates our offense like there was last year or the previous five or six years. The interesting part for us is to see who does take on that role. It could be a combination of people,” he said.
Sophomore guard Bria Hartley had 20 points in the regional semifinal win over Penn State. Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had a great first game against Prairie View. There’s also center Stefanie Dolson and Hayes. Any of them could potentially have huge games.
“I think a lot of us are capable of doing it, but if it needs to be me, I’ll be the one to step up,” said Hayes. “If it needs to be Stef, I’m sure she’ll be willing to step up as well. So whoever needs to take on that role, I’m sure they’ll step up and do it.”
While making the Final Four is nothing new for the Huskies, Kentucky is trying to make its first trip to the national
semifinals. The second-seeded Wildcats have reached the regional finals in two of the last three seasons.
Three years ago when the Wildcats were picked 11th in the Southeastern Conference, coach Matthew Mitchell put a sign outside the locker room with the logo of the Final Four. His team came within one game of reaching that goal, losing to Oklahoma in the regional final.
This season a photo of the Denver Final Four logo adorns the outside of the Wildcats’ locker room. They are once again one victory away from reaching it. Getting that win over the Huskies would be monumental for the school, which has always been one of the elite men’s basketball powerhouses. The Kentucky men are already in the Final Four.
“Kentucky’s a very special place to coach basketball because the men have over a course of a century built a tradition that’s quite unlike anywhere else,” Mitchell said. “It’s a brand name in college basketball that signifies excellence.”
The two women’s teams haven’t played much. Connecticut has won two of the three meetings, with the last one coming in 1999.
Mitchell has a little familiarity with the Huskies since he got his start as a grad assistant for Tennessee in 1999-2000.
Mitchell is aware of the aura surrounding the Huskies.
“Anybody who says it doesn’t exist is living in la-la land,” Mitchell said. “They aren’t in reality and Connecticut has earned the mystique, Tennessee has earned the mystique. I think you’re silly if you try to act like there’s not a mystique around Connecticut. We have a huge challenge.”
An interesting subplot to the game is Kentucky star forward Samarie Walker, who transferred from Connecticut in the middle of last season. After sitting out the first half of this year because of NCAA transfer rules, she’s been a huge factor for the Wildcats. She’s had back-to-back double-doubles, including a 16-point, 12-rebound effort in the regional semifinal win over Gonzaga.
“The kids that are the most successful in college are the ones that commit themselves 100 percent with their heart and soul and everything they got,” Auriemma said. “They go into it with a sense of `I’m going to be great here.”’
“Samarie didn’t have that at Connecticut. It became evident early on that she didn’t have that at Connecticut. The success she’s having at Kentucky is that she has all those things in place right now. That’s what you would hope for any kid,” he said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)