By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Vanderbilt’s players tried to take the placards from their NCAA tournament news conference Friday as souvenirs.
St. Joseph’s asked if they could get a photo with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.
Idaho’s kids talked about the excitement of making the team’s second ever trip to the tournament, and the program’s third trip to the eastern time zone.
But for UConn (29-4), making its 25th straight tournament appearance, Friday was about starting a run at a sixth straight Final Four and an eighth national title.
“There’s expectations here,” guard Kelly Faris said. “I think there are times that we take it for granted that we are a part of the tournament every year, but it goes back to what’s expected of us and what’s expected of this program and what coach has built here.”
UConn faces 16th-seeded Idaho (17-15) in the first round on Saturday. Guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said the Huskies are not looking past the Western Athletic Conference champions, but understand that a first-round win is not really their goal, just a step toward it.
“When you come to Connecticut, you know you have a really good chance of winning a national championship,” she said. “And whatever work you are willing to put in to get there, determines whether you get a national championship. That’s where we are now.”
Auriemma said he’s still tinkering with his lineup after two losses this month to No. 2 Notre Dame, a team that has beaten UConn in each of the last two Final Fours.
Junior center Stefanie Dolson and sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will start against the Vandals, but the other spots, he said are up for grabs.
“We’ve tried every combination through practice and sometimes they all look good and sometimes none of them looks good and sometimes it looks OK,” he said. “I’ve got some thoughts, but I want to make sure I’ve exhausted all the possibilities before I make a decision.”
Meanwhile, Idaho coach Jon Newlee said he wants his team, which starts three freshmen and a sophomore, just to enjoy the experience of being WAC champions and part of the field of 64.
“This is their reward for all the hard work and all the practices and all the time and the blood, sweat and the tears that they’ve put in,” he said.
Should Connecticut get past Idaho, the Huskies will face either No. 8 seed Vanderbilt or No. 9 seed St. Joseph’s in the second round.
Vanderbilt (20-11) comes into its 14th straight NCAA tournament on the mend after an injury-plagued season that forced coach Melanie Balcomb to use seven different starting lineups.
The Commodores lost center Stephanie Holzer for the season to a knee injury in an exhibition game. Starting guard Kady Schrann has played only sparingly after an ankle injury suffered in January. And the team’s biggest outside threat, Christina Foggie, has been coming off the bench after suffering a late-season knee injury that kept her out four games.
“I think the injuries really helped us come together more as a team, and play good basketball and play well when we needed to,” said forward Tiffany Clarke, who has led the team in scoring this season, averaging almost 17 points. “A lot of people wrote us off due to our injuries, but we didn’t write ourselves off and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Balcomb said other players have stepped up, including three freshmen, making a healthier team more dangerous.
“We haven’t played our best game yet,” guard Jasmine Lister said. “I think our mission is to get to that best game and actually, like, peak.”
St. Joseph’s (23-8) comes into its first tournament since 2000 after beating top-seed Dayton in the Atlantic 10 semifinals and winning the championship game by a point over Fordham.
“Our team has a great fight in us,” forward Chatilla van Grinsven said. “Being here in the NCAA tournament for the first time in so many years means so much for us.”
The Hawks are led by Maryland transfer Natasha Cloud and senior guard Ashley Prim, who is from nearby Ansonia, Conn. She was able to get tickets for more than 30 friends and family to watch Saturday as she ties the school record for games played.
“It’s a great cap to my senior year,” she said. “We’re refusing to lose. We made it here and we’re going to go as far as we possibly can without any regrets.”
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