By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Top-ranked UConn understands the part it’s playing in this year’s NCAA tournament.
While the rest of the country might like to see more parity in women’s basketball, the defending champions are beginning what they hope will be a run at a record ninth title on Sunday, breaking the tie with Tennessee.
“People always have to have somebody that’s either the star or the villain,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “Somebody’s got to play that role.”
The Huskies, who just completed their seventh undefeated regular season, open their tournament run with a less than marquee matchup against No. 16 seed Prairie View A&M. The Panthers come into the game 14-17 after winning their fourth consecutive SWAC conference title. The team lost its first 11 games this season, before turning things around late. But they are 0-5 in the NCAA tournament.
The Huskies, on the other hand, have won 40-straight games, a streak that started with a 105-37 win over Idaho over in the first-round a year ago.
They have been beating opponents by an average of 36 points a game this season, about a point better than their margin of victory in last year’s six tournament games that ended with the program’s record-tying eighth national title. They are 91-17 in the tournament.
But that doesn’t mean they plan to take it easy on Sunday.
“Sometimes, I’m surprised how some teams come out and don’t have energy for the first game of the NCAA tournament,” guard Bria Hartley said. “I think there sound be a lot of excitement in that. We focus on what we do and what we’re doing on the court.”
Prairie View, just the ninth team to enter the tournament with a losing record, knows what to expect. They lost to the Huskies 83-47 in the first round two years ago.
But they are embracing the underdog role.
“Being that there has been a couple of upsets already on the men’s side, it gives a lot of confidence to us,” said guard Alexus Parker.
The winner will face either the eighth seed, Georgia or ninth-seeded Saint Joseph’s in the second round. Georgia pulled off one of the biggest upsets of last year’s tournament, beating top-seeded Stanford in the regional semifinals.
Here are five things to know about the sub-regional in Storrs:
FAMILIAR VENUE: Saint Joseph’s is in Storrs for the second consecutive year. The Hawks also were a No. 9 seed a year ago, losing by six points in the first round to Vanderbilt. Coach Cindy Griffin thinks that experience could help against Georgia.
“I think we’re stronger in the fact that we’re more experienced in the backcourt and the fact that Erin (Shields) and Natasha (Cloud) have been here before and played on this stage before,” she said. “We have more balance. I think we’re faster than we were last year. Again, it’s about experience.”
POINT THRESHOLD: Georgia is 6-0 this season when scoring at least 80-points, and 431-6 (98.6 percent) all-time under head coach Andy Landers when the team reaches that plateau. But the Bulldogs are averaging just 66 points a game this year.
“I think there are a couple of difficulties with getting to the 80-point mark, Landers said. “Defensively, we attempt to play you very, very well. We don’t normally allow you to get the ball down the floor very quickly, so it slows the game down. Defensively we slow the game down, we don’t speed it up. We defend pretty well in the half court.”
UCONN STREAKING: The Huskies 40-game winning streak is the third longest in program history. The Huskies set the national record by winning 90 straight games between November 2008 and December 2010. The program also won 70 games in a row between November, 2001 and a loss to Villanova in March, 2003 in the Big East championship game.
OPENING ROUND: UConn is 21-2 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and 21-2 in the second round. The Huskies have made the regional semifinals 20 straight times since losing in the first round to Louisville in 1993.
PLAYING THE BEST: Prairie View has been to four straight NCAA tournaments, but has faced just two opponents, UConn and Baylor. They lost to the Bears 82-40 last year and 66-30 in 2011.
“This experience has been something that we’re used to,” said coach Dawn Brown. “What we’ve been talking to the team about is about the upsets and everything that’s been going on right now that we’ve been watching on ESPN. I told the young ladies, I said `Why not us? Why not now?”’
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