It’s USC’s party, but UConn’s world

Coach Geno Auriemma and Connecticut are vying for their 10th national championship at the women’s Final Four in Tampa, Fla.

It’s an irresistible story — the head coach who reached basketball’s promised land three times as a player, now leading her up-and-coming program into its first Final Four. Dawn Staley and South Carolina are the darlings of Tampa Bay this weekend, but they also fall under the long shadow of the team everyone expects to cut down the nets Tuesday.

The days leading up to this Final Four may be South Carolina’s party, but women’s college basketball remains Connecticut’s world. The nine-time and twice-defending national champions are back again, their supremacy burnished by blowout victories over two of the other three teams that reached Amalie Arena, their head coach pursuing a 10th title which would tie John Wooden for most in major college basketball history.

They beat South Carolina by 25 in February. They beat Notre Dame, the Gamecocks’ opponent in Sunday’s first national final, by 18 in December. They’ve won 35 straight since a head-scratcher of an overtime loss at Stanford in the second game of the season, and after that showed virtually no weaknesses until they trailed Dayton at halftime of their regional final.

Think that means the Huskies are vulnerable? Think again.

“I think that actually made them stronger,” said Debbie Antonelli, a Mount Pleasant resident and broadcast analyst who will call the Final Four for Westwood One radio. “They’ve had some game pressure that they haven’t had, except for in November when they played Stanford. So I actually think it’s made them stronger.”

How dominant has UConn (36-1) been this season? The Huskies lead the nation in scoring offense, scoring defense, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and an array of other statistics. They win by an average of nearly 42 points per game, an amount some looked askance at due to the lack of real competition in the American Athletic Conference — until they trounced then-No. 1 South Carolina on Feb. 9 in Gampel Pavilion.

Yet head coach Geno Auriemma makes no assumptions, even though the Huskies haven’t come up empty in the Final Four since 2012.

“We’re not going down there thinking that we’re so good that it doesn’t matter,” he said earlier this week in a conference call with reporters. “Any team that’s down there this weekend can win the national championship. We don’t buy into this nonsense that we’re the only team that can win this thing anymore than I’m sure the rest of the country thinks Kentucky can’t lose in the men’s Final Four. That’s not the case at all. Things happen in the Final Four that you just don’t expect.”

Maryland, UConn’s opponent in Sunday’s late semifinal, would certainly love to prove him correct. The Terrapins (34-2) are a seasoned bunch in their own right, having won 28 straight since a Dec. 3 loss to Notre Dame. On paper they have better personnel than Dayton, which in the Albany Regional final scored more first-half points against Connecticut than any opponent since 2008, and kept the game close until the Huskies pulled away in the final 10 minutes.

Could one of the other Final Four teams use a similar style, and finish the job? Dayton’s attack was based on pushing tempo, dribble-drive penetration, and dishing for 3-point shots. Antonelli believes the squad best suited to replicate that tactic might be Notre Dame, which upset UConn in the national semifinals in 2011 and 2012, averages nearly 90 points per game, and has the kind of scorers that could keep pace with the Huskies in an up-and-down game.

“You have to have five people who can score,” she said, “and Notre Dame has five people who can score.”

But historically, Connecticut has responded with a vengeance any time it’s shown even a hint of vulnerability. Auriemma said his players wanted to brush off the Stanford loss as a fluke, and the coaching staff wouldn’t let them. “We’ve matured a lot since that November weekend,” he said. And been near-flawless in the process.

“They’re a competitive group, and they thrive on a competitive situation,” Antonelli said. “I think their practices have been harder than their games. So to actually be challenged at halftime, and go through that adversity — the worst thing that could have happened for Dayton in that game was for there to have been a halftime.”

Come Tuesday night, the other three teams in the Final Four might agree. And where does all this leave South Carolina, the only program in Tampa without a national title? Playing the underdog role Staley’s team once portrayed with regularity, and reprised on one night in Connecticut two months ago.

“We’ve played that role before,” she said. “So it will be familiar territory.”