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For Bruins, upset is mind-set vs. UConn women

 
UCLA guard Jordin Canada, center, shoots against Texas A&M during the first half of a second-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Monday, March 20, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu) ULA107
UCLA guard Jordin Canada, center, shoots against Texas A&M during the first half of a second-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Monday, March 20, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu) ULA107
Published March 25, 2017

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Several members of the Connecticut women's basketball team fielded questions in a small locker room jammed with reporters on Friday. Meanwhile, an HBO television crew shadowed their coach and about half of the team sat around a table playing cards and laughing.

Just another day at the office for the top ranked and unbeaten-since-2014 Huskies as they prepare to face UCLA in a Bridgeport Region semifinal today.

For UCLA (25-8), a contingent that appeared a bit groggy entering Webster Bank Arena for a practice session bundled in seldom-worn winter jackets, the matchup is a chance to make history — or to become the 110th consecutive UConn opponent to bite the dust.

"We're confident," UCLA guard Kari Korver said. "I don't think we're thinking, 'Oh no, it's UConn.' I think we're excited and we're just trying to get ready as our team to be the best we can be."

Connecticut (34-0) has won six of the past eight NCAA women's basketball titles and is seeking a fifth straight. This season, only three teams have come within 10 points of the Huskies, who have blown out opponents by an average of 33.6 points.

And to think it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Coach Geno Auriemma even suggested early on that the Huskies might suffer a few losses, after three players from last season's team — Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck — were the top three picks in last April's WNBA draft.

Most of Connecticut's starters did not play a significant role in the team's past success.

"This is why I think they play better than their individual pieces on paper are supposed to … is their ability to pass the ball," UCLA coach Cori Close said. "Every single person on their team can pass it … therefore, they create such easier opportunities for each other."

The Huskies average 23.9 assists per game — more than twice as many as their opponents.

Katie Lou Samuelson, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard from Santa Ana Mater Dei High, leads UConn in scoring, averaging 20.9 points. She has made 114 3-point baskets and is shooting 43 percent from behind the arc.

Sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, 6-1, shoots 69.3 percent (284-of-410) and averages 20.2 points. And last week, in a second-round rout of Syracuse, junior guard Kia Nurse — who averages 13.7 points — erupted for 29, tying an NCAA Tournament record with nine 3-pointers.

"They find the most open person and get them the ball," Korver said.

The Huskies' defense also has been dominant, holding opponents to 54.1 points per game and 34.7 percent shooting.

"They're able to just shut down teams," UCLA guard Jordin Canada said. "The way they play defense is team basketball."

UCLA routed Boise State and Texas A&M at Pauley Pavilion to earn a second consecutive trip to a region semifinal for the first time in program history. Last season in the same region, the Bruins lost to Texas in a semifinal.

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Canada, 5 feet 6 inches, leads the Bruins in scoring, averaging 17.8 points. She notched a double double in their first- and second-round games, scoring 15 and dishing for 16 assists against Boise State and producing 12 points and 11 assists against Texas A&M.

Forward Monique Billings, 6 feet 4 inches, averages a double double — 16.7 points and 10.3 rebounds — and guard Korver enters Saturday's game on a hot streak. The 5-9 senior scored 21 points — making seven 3-point shots — against the Aggies.

"They are a really unique bunch," Auriemma said. "One kid can really shoot it, another one is great with the ball and another one just goes and gets every rebound and is athletic as all get-out."

UCLA has not advanced to a region final since 1999.

"Are we going to have to play our best game of the year to win?" Close asked, rhetorically.

"Of course."