- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

HARTFORD, CONN. (AP) - Selecting the top seed for the women’s NCAA tournament Monday night will have all the suspense of a Connecticut women’s basketball game.

The Huskies have won all 33 of those this season, by an average of more than 31 points.

They beat No. 3 Oklahoma by 28 points, No. 11 North Carolina by 30 points in Chapel Hill, and No. Louisville twice, by 28 in the regular season and by 39 for the conference title.

They are prohibitive favorites to earn the program’s sixth national title.

“If we played every game in the tournament the next couple weeks and it was best three-out-of-five, I would tell you, ‘Let’s not play the tournament,’” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Cause nobody is going to beat us in a three-out-of-five.”

Fortunately for every other team, this will be a single-elimination event.

Courtney Paris has already told Oklahoma fans that she will pay back her scholarship if she doesn’t lead the Sooners to a title. No. 2 Stanford, which ended the regular season on a 13-game winning streak, ACC champion Maryland (28-4) and the rest of the field all plan to show up and play.

“That gap just … closes when the NCAA tournament starts,” UConn senior point guard Renee Montgomery said. “Everyone is completely different at tournament time. A team we might have beaten by 28 today or two days before the NCAA tournament, it’s completely different.”

There is also the question of how the Huskies might respond to a close game. The haven’t won by fewer than 10 points all year.

“We’ve been in a bunch of tough situations,” said forward Kalana Greene said. “I mean the score doesn’t show it, but a lot of games were tough to play in.”

This will be the fourth time Connecticut has entered the NCAA tournament undefeated. Twice, in 1995 and in 2002, the Huskies won the title.

But the 1996-97 UConn squad, which included Nykesha Sales and Kara Wolters, lost a freshman named Shea Ralph to a knee injury in the first round, then lost in the regional finals to Tennessee.

Wolters said she believes a similar injury is the only thing that could derail this year’s team.

“They have such good chemistry,” said Wolters, who also was a key member of the 1995 championship team. “That’s not by accident. Geno recruits a certain type of player, and that family atmosphere is not something that you can replace.”

Connecticut is led by three stars. Sophomore star Maya Moore, who averages over 19 points and nine rebounds per game, was named the Big East’s player of the year and the Big East tournament’s most outstanding player. Junior center Tina Charles has averaged 16 points and eight boards this season, and Montgomery averaged almost 16 points and five assists.

But they’ve gotten a lot of help from freshman Tiffany Hayes, who held Villanova star Laura Kurz scoreless in the conference semifinals, and Greene, who held Louisville’s Angel McCoughtry, the conference’s leading scorer, to nine points in the championship game.

When asked about the talent level, Louisville coach Jeff Walz responded by talking about the joy of coaching a player of McCoughtry’s talent.

“Coach Auriemma has like six of them, so you can imagine how joyful it is to have six of em,” Walz said.

Auriemma said he still gets nervous waiting to see the brackets. There have been years, he said, when he’s looked at the matchups and said, “No problem” and other years where he’s said, “We’re dead.”

Moore said she won’t be looking past the first game as she begins a quest to match Diana Taurasi, who won the first of her three championships as a sophomore.

“All that _ best ever, history _ we can look back on later,” Moore said. “But I think if we take our eyes off our goal, that’s when you do lose before you’re supposed to, so we’re just focused on the next game.”

The Huskies say they are highly motivated for a title run. Last season, they made it to the Final Four after a three-year absence. This year they want to take a step further.

“What’s the difference if I retire with five national championships or six?” Auriemma said. “What, are they going to think less of me as a coach? But if Renee graduates from here and she’s won a national championship. Whew, I get goose bumps just thinking about that.”

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