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UConn playing villain to Final Four field

Published 6:50 pm, Saturday, April 5, 2014
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NASHVILLE -- To three teams in the women's Final Four, UConn is the villain.

The Huskies are defending national champions. They're undefeated and on a 44-game winning streak. The Associated Press Player of the Year, Breanna Stewart, is also the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player. They have five All-Americans in the starting lineup.

It's a resume that is as impressive as it comes in women's college basketball. Not to mention the top-ranked Huskies are looking to win their NCAA-record ninth national championship over the next three days at Bridgestone Arena. Seeing them fall short of their goal would be pleasing to a whole lot of people. And they know it, too.

"I think the biggest target's on our back," Stewart said. "This is people's last shot to beat us for the season. And, of course, they want to do it. You have to accept the challenge. I think that everyone wants to take you down just because we're supposedly No. 1 and you just take that and just use it as fuel to the fire."

Stanford (33-3) becomes the next opponent in line for the Huskies (38-0) when the teams meet in the national semifinals tonight (approximately 9, ESPN). It will be the fifth time that these storied programs have clashed in the Final Four, including the 2010 tournament final in San Antonio.

Notre Dame (36-0) will meet Maryland (28-6) in the first semifinal matchup (6:30). The Irish will be without starting center Natalie Achonwa due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.

"I think the target's always on Connecticut's back," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "So because what unfortunately happened to Natalie, Notre Dame's not the same team that played all year long. Just like when we went to St. Louis and played Notre Dame (in 2001), we weren't the same team that played Notre Dame. So the pressure's all on us. And that's fine. I wouldn't want it anywhere else."

Much of the talk this season has been about an anticipated battle between UConn and Notre Dame in the title game Tuesday night. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer seems genuinely annoyed that the Cardinal are not being given the respect she feels they deserve heading into the semifinals.

VanDerveer told her players about a similar situation in 1990 when Louisiana Tech arrived at the Final Four undefeated and were expected to win the championship.

"We played the first game against Virginia, and one guy in the stands yells, `Now the jayvee game is over, let's watch the varsity game,"' VanDerveer said. "If people want to think that we are a jayvee team and that the varsity team is the other teams, then so be it. Players in our locker room are working very hard and are very confident and know what it takes to play at this level, and we are very excited."

Stanford went on to defeat Auburn in the final that year in Knoxville, Tenn., to earn its first national championship.

"Connecticut has a great team," VanDerveer said. "I'm really glad that we did play them early in the season, and I feel like our team is playing with a lot of confidence. We're looking forward to the rematch. ... I think people, players in the tournament, just kind of resent a little bit of the inevitability. Like why have the tournament if it's inevitable? We definitely want to be party crashers."

UConn defeated Stanford 76-57 at Gampel Pavilion Nov. 11. The Huskies, who played the final 18:08 without Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (elbow), scored 14 points in transition and held the Cardinal to 35.0 percent shooting from field.

Bria Hartley had 20 points to lead UConn. Amber Orrange had a season-high 22 for Stanford. At this point, little that has transpired in that game possesses much value in the rematch.

Auriemma pointed out that the Huskies beat the Cardinal 66-54 at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands Nov. 22, 2007. Stanford then ended UConn's season with a win in the national semifinals in Tampa a few months later.

"You can take it for granted if you're not careful that, `Well, we already beat this team so that's not going to be a problem,"' Auriemma said. "And I think if you do that, you're going to lose. It was so long ago, it seems like we played them last year. So I think going into (tonight), I don't know that what happened in November is going to have any effect."

As much as UConn has changed since that first game between the teams, Stanford has, too. The Cardinal are more balanced right now, with five players averaging double figures in scoring in the tournament. They are led, of course, by senior All-American Chiney Ogwumike, who is averaging 23.3 points and 10.5 rebounds over the past four games.

"We just watched our game in November and we were like, `Whoa, we are different,'" Ogwumike said. "So I think that we'll use that confidence knowing that we've worked hard and we've improved and that we're a different tram. So just approach this game as if we're playing any other team. We're underdogs, so we can be even more relaxed."

Ogwumike is not as "irritated" by the lack of respect being shown to Stanford as VanDerveer. But she was very candid about the subject.

"I think it's obvious that the tag line for the Final Four is `pursuit of perfection,"' Ogwumike said. "But at the same time, sometimes dangerous people operate in silence. We're just playing Stanford basketball. That's all we care about."

Hartley knows exactly how it feels to be disrespected in the NCAA tournament. Last year the talk centered on defending national champion Baylor and Notre Dame meeting in the final. That provided the Huskies with added motivation.

This time around, repeating as national champions is the only motivation they need.

"I think any team going in there would be (ticked) off," Hartley said. "So I'm sure they'll use that as motivation, but we still have a goal. We're going out there and we want to win a national championship."

relliott@ctpost.com; @elliottctpost; blog.ctnews.com/elliott/