Before Duquesne’s round-of-32 game against Connecticut in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the Dukes bluntly said they would not be distracted by the illustrious UConn aura. They believed that the Huskies, then 33-0 and winners of 70 games in a row, were in fact beatable.
Word of the chirping reached the UConn locker room. On Monday, UConn responded by throttling Duquesne, 97-51.
Mississippi State was wise enough to not make any predictions about beating the Huskies before their round-of-16 matchup in the Bridgeport Regional, which may have come as a disappointment to the UConn faithful. Throughout this season, when teams have been emboldened to publicly challenge UConn’s status, the Huskies have thrived.
The lack of bulletin board material did not slow top-seeded Connecticut on Saturday, as they dominated fifth-seeded Mississippi State 98-38 at Webster Bank Arena.
Breanna Stewart had 22 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes. Katie Lou Samuelson added 21 points for the Huskies.
In one minor moment of boastfulness Friday, Mississippi State’s leading scorer, Victoria Vivians, said she thought the Bulldogs could win without her offensive contributions by getting defensive stops in transition.
That proved to be false. Vivians shot 3-for-15 from the field, and UConn spent a majority of the afternoon freely sprinting up the court for uncontested layups, causing Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer to compare them to “piranhas on a roast.”
“We’re always like, ‘Why are you lighting a fire?’ ” Kia Nurse, a sophomore guard for UConn, said Friday, adding: “We’ve heard the ‘We’re pretty beatable’ comment a couple of times; it’s like a repetitive comment, for some reason. We’re confident in what we do, and we understand that we’re not invincible, but at the same time we’re coming out every single time focused and ready to go and with the intent of winning that game.”
Last weekend, UConn was taken aback when Duquesne guard Deva’Nyar Workman said UConn was not “superhuman,” and she would not “get caught up in their greatness.” At the American Athletic Conference tournament this month, South Florida’s Courtney Williams also claimed the Huskies were not unbeatable.
The Bulls went 0-3 against the Huskies this season, including a 77-51 loss in the conference tournament championship game.
“When we hear things like that, we’re like, ‘Let’s show them who’s really beatable,’ so we go out there and play extra hard and show them why we’re here and why we’re so successful,” said Saniya Chong, a junior guard for the Huskies.
Occasionally, during timeout huddles or pregame shoot-arounds, players will bring up an opponent’s recent comments, as a motivational tactic.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma is also a fan of teams that publicly challenge the Huskies.
“I think that forces you to be better that night as opposed to a team that comes in and goes, ‘You know what, we got nothing to lose; we’re just going to go play the game, and we’re leaving after the game when we lose by 50,’ ” Auriemma said. “So nobody wants to play a team like that.”
Entering the game, Schaefer said the Bulldogs could build off its battles in the Southeastern Conference, which included two wins over Tennessee. But he said he would not provide a grandiose motivational speech about upsetting Connecticut.
“You know, kids are pretty smart,” Schaefer said Friday. “So I think you can say it, but they’re probably going to look at me with crossed eyes and go, ‘Huh?’ I think everybody in the country and the world that has a heartbeat understands what you’re dealing with, 71 games in a row.”
With Saturday’s win, UConn extended its unbeaten streak to 72, and 35 this season.
Despite the absence of taunts, Schaefer said the Huskies received even more motivation after two No. 1 seeds — South Carolina and Notre Dame — both fell Friday.
“I thought it worked against us,” Schaefer said. “I didn’t think it would work for me. I felt like this is the worst thing that could have happened.”
UConn opened the game on a 13-0 run. It led 32-4 after one quarter and 61-12 at halftime. Shooting almost 63 percent from the field for the afternoon, the Huskies led by as many as 68 points in the fourth quarter. Mississippi State missed all 14 of its 3-point attempts.
Those stats create a strong case for UConn’s invincibility. Before Saturday’s game, Auriemma was the only person actually willing to admit that the Huskies could be taken down.
“I’m thinking, like, everybody should say that because it’s true,” Auriemma said. “I think every team is beatable, and I think it’s good when you play a team that thinks if we do A, B, and C, we’re going to win this game.”
After Saturday’s masterful performance, Schaefer disagreed.
“Today, it felt like I was playing a WNBA team,” Schaefer said. “That team right there probably finishes — I don’t know what team in the league they can’t compete with.
“They play like they play today, there’s not anybody in the country that can beat them.”