Anticipation runs high for both UConn, USC

Geno Auriemma and No. 2 Connecticut will likely carry a 21-game winning streak into Monday's game against No. 1 South Carolina, which has won 22 straight. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

COLUMBIA — Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma earned his 900th career victory Tuesday, but there was little drama in what quickly become another rout of another overmatched conference opponent. The real anticipation bubbled through the crowd whenever the video boards at Hartford’s XL Center promoted Monday’s game in Storrs against No. 1 South Carolina — even though it’s been sold-out for weeks.

“During those TV timeouts, promos would go up, and you’d really feel a buzz going around,” said former Huskies All-American Rebecca Lobo, who was at the game with her daughter. “I think the fans are really looking forward to it, and I would imagine the players and coaches are, too. At some point, being up 30 (points) 45 minutes into a game just isn’t the same. Players look forward to big moments, and this is going to be one for them.”

Monday’s showdown at Gampel Pavilion looms as a watershed moment for South Carolina, which will carry an unbeaten record into an arena where the second-ranked Huskies have lost just 19 times since the building opened in 1990. Anticipation runs high on both sides — it’s the biggest regular season game in USC history, but also a welcome challenge for a Connecticut team that has beaten American Athletic Conference foes by an average of 50 points each.

“I don’t know how it feels to the coaches and the players. I know to the fan base, they can’t wait,” said Lobo, now an ESPN analyst. “Especially because Connecticut plays in the American Conference — they haven’t had a competitive game since what, Notre Dame (on Dec. 6). Even when Duke came in, they beat them by 30. People looked forward to that, but Connecticut has kind of a history of beating Duke handily. So I think the fan base is like, finally, we get to see what we think is going to be a great game.”

UConn (21-1) still has one game remaining before Monday’s showdown — Saturday at Memphis, which it beat by an average of 37 points in two contests last year. The Huskies will likely carry a 21-game winning streak into Monday’s 8 p.m. matchup against South Carolina (22-0), which after dispatching No. 22 Georgia on Thursday night, is finally able to turn its full focus to the nine-time national champions.

“They’re ready,” USC coach Dawn Staley said of her team. “I think they’re pretty focused. It’s a long time coming. I think a lot of people have been anticipating this moment, and so have they. If they have any competitive spirit and want, it is to participate in this type of environment, this type of game, this type of anticipation. So they’re ready.”

Although South Carolina assumed the top spot in the rankings after Connecticut’s lone loss at Stanford on Nov. 17, the Huskies have still received a handful of No. 1 votes each week. While that’s been a source of motivation among USC’s players, senior forward Aleighsa Welch said the Gamecocks aren’t going to Storrs with the intention of making a statement.

“That’s not our focus,” the Goose Creek native said. “This is a great team. This a team I feel like every team should want to play, because they’ve been a staple of women’s basketball for so long now. But it’s not a game about proving ourselves, not about they have to say this, or they have to say that. This is a game about us. This is a game about making sure we come out and execute our game plan. If you get too caught up in, we have to make this a statement game, I feel like that’s when you can stumble a little bit.”

If anything, there’s an abundance of admiration for the opponent, given that USC’s players grew up watching UConn win national championships and complete undefeated seasons. “I used to pick up a lot of their plays watching them on television,” said freshman guard Bianca Cuevas, a Brooklyn native.

“You always wanted to be a part of a program like that growing up, somebody who could win championship after championship after championship,” Welch added. “Everybody, one through 15 (on the USC roster), has ultimate respect for them and what they’ve done.”