BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Geno Auriemma hasn’t lost too many NCAA tournament games in the state of Connecticut.
The Hall of Fame coach was hard pressed to remember a harder regional than the one his Huskies will face this weekend in Bridgeport. UConn opens up in the semifinals against Maryland on Sunday. Second-seeded Kentucky will face Elena Delle Donne and No. 6 Delaware in the other game.
“There are four great teams, lots of marquee names, lots of interesting side stories, and that leads to a great environment,” said Auriemma, whose team has won 41 of its past 42 NCAA games in the state.
UConn’s lone blemish came against Duke in 2006 in the regional final. That game was also played in Bridgeport.
If Delaware and UConn do make it through, it would set up an intriguing finals matchup. Delle Donne originally signed with UConn before abruptly leaving after a short stay to return home to Delaware.
“I haven’t allowed myself to think about that,” Delle Donne said. “All year our team has said just focus on the next game. If we were thinking about UConn, we’d overlook Kentucky. We’re focused on Kentucky to hopefully advance.”
Delle Donne is one of three reigning conference players of the year still around in Bridgeport. Many fans might be surprised to learn UConn is the only team that doesn’t have one.
“I think this is one of the more difficult first-round games of the regionals. And the other game, yeah, you got really good players on every team,” Auriemma said. “I’m sure every region has got their own, but I don’t know that anyone has more than what exists here. Kentucky’s back again and Maryland’s in again.”
The Huskies have already played the Terrapins earlier this season, beating Maryland by 15 points in the Jimmy V Classic in December. Two-time ACC player of the year Alyssa Thomas had just six points in that game. UConn star Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played five minutes before suffering a concussion. She’s completely healthy now.
“With her in the game, it’s going to make it a lot more difficult for them to defend us and make our offense run a little bit smoother,” said UConn center Stefanie Dolson, who practiced sparingly this past week while resting stress injuries in her right ankle and left foot.
No team left playing has been plagued by injuries more than Maryland. The Terps lost three players this season to ACL injuries, including the expected starting backcourt. It hasn’t mattered as players have stepped up, including Thomas. The junior guard has averaged 28.5 points in the NCAA tournament so far.
“She thrives on a competitive stage,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “The bigger stage, the bigger the moment, she wants to be a part of it and thrives to excel.”
Frese opted for a different mode to get to Connecticut having her team ride the train up from Maryland.
“We felt like it would be a tremendous experience for a lot of our players,” Frese said. “I asked them and over three quarters of them had never taken the train. To give them that experience through basketball was a phenomenal opportunity and one we really enjoyed together.”
The first game features two stars in Delle Donne and two-time SEC player of the year A’dia Mathies. The Wildcats are happy that a flu bug that ran through the team in the first two rounds has run its course.
“I’m hopeful it won’t be an issue,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Not anything you want to go through as a coach. Right now all the players can play and are healthy.”
Mathies, who had a stomach bug, matched her career high with 34 points in the second-round win over Dayton.
“I’m 100 percent,” Mathies said. “I don’t know if it was the flu, but my stomach was hurting really badly.”
The Wildcats will have to figure out a way to slow down Delle Donne. The 6-foot-5 star, who is the second-leading scorer in the nation, has 33 points in each of the first two games of the NCAA tournament and helped guide the Blue Hens to their first trip to the regional semifinals.
“She’s just a fantastic player and you can tell a unique talent, an incredible talent,” Mitchell said.
The Blue Hens are aware of the Wildcats’ “40 minutes of dread” pressure defense.
“They have a really tough pressure defense,” Delle Donne said. “We have faced some throughout the tournament, none like this. We have to take care of the basketball, limit our turnovers. We have to run in transition with them.”
Delaware played its first two games at home in front of a loud raucous crowd that included Vice President Joe Biden. Coach Tina Martin wasn’t sure if he’d be in attendance this weekend.
“I can’t speak to the vice president’s schedule. He’s a good luck charm as we haven’t lost when he’s been in the stands,” Martin said.
Bridgeport was a late addition as a regional site after the NCAA moved it from Trenton, N.J., in November, citing a new law that allowed gambling on college sports in New Jersey. The late switch didn’t seem to affect ticket sales, as Sunday’s session is sold out with nearly 8,600 fans expected to attend each session.MORE IN Sports WireMIAMI — Draft night belonged to Ben Simmons.
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