STORRS, Conn. -- Geno Auriemma is never at a loss for words, but the University of Connecticut women's basketball coach never thought he'd say what he did Friday.
"If we could go back in time four years ago and tape this segment and hear these words come out of my mouth, 'I don't know where we would be without Saniya Chong,' I'd say, 'Somebody dubbed that into Coach Auriemma's mouth,' " Auriemma said during a press conference here. "Now here we are four years removed and I don't know where we would be without Saniya right now. That's how much she has changed and how much she has added to our program.
"It was two years ago when Saniya said she wanted to keep playing after college. I said something like, 'I'm sure there are many pickup leagues back in Ossining, New York, that would love to have you as part of their program.' Now having watched her play this year I'm thinking, 'You know, there is a place for her to play next year.' I told her at the conference tournament,' I don't know how many people understand this, but you might be the most important person out on the court for as long as we are in the NCAA tournament.' "
Top-seeded UConn (32-0) begins its bid for a fifth consecutive national championship Saturday when it hosts No. 16 America East tournament winner Albany in a Bridgeport Regional first-round game at Gampel Pavilion.
Chong comes in averaging career bests of 8.2 points and 3.9 assists per game. Her assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.63 leads the American Athletic Conference and is second nationally, 0.05 behind Western Kentucky senior Micah Jones. The senior guard from Ossining was named to the all-AAC third team earlier this month.
But though the Huskies are 30-0 in the postseason during her career, by late March of the championship runs she's become a non-factor.
Chong was on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court in Indianapolis when the final buzzer went off in the NCAA final last April. But there was a 1:24 stretch of the third quarter she'd rather forget. Chong came on and Syracuse scored the final six points of a 16-0 run that cut the Huskies' lead from 33 to 17. As Auriemma called time out to put Morgan Tuck back in the game, he turned to associated head coach Chris Dailey and said, "You can't trust her" as Chong took a seat on the bench.
The senior guard has spent the last six months earning Auriemma's trust and has enjoyed the best season of her career. But how her year will be remembered will be determined in the next 15 days.
"My confidence level is pretty good right now," Chong said. "I want my teammates to be able to trust in me. They know what I can do and I know what I need to do. I'm going to play my role and be willing to help my team in any way I can."
"I've been trying to get better and better. We're really excited and I'm happy to finish it off with this group of girls."
Chong has played in 17 NCAA tournament games at UConn, the most among active players. In 132 minutes, she has totaled 35 points. But breaking those numbers down further, 92 of those minutes and 29 of those points have come in first- and second-round games that the Huskies have won by an average of 43.3 points.
So while her accomplishments of the last six months are noteworthy, she knows she can't afford a letdown under Auriemma's watch.
"I have to prove it to him every day that I'm here for a reason and that I can do the job he wants me to do," Chong said. "I want him to trust me and for him to know that things will go well for us when I'm on the court."
UConn has won 23 straight NCAA first-round games since its last tourney loss at Gampel Pavilion to Louisville in 1993. But Albany (21-11) is a little different No. 16 seed than the Huskies have seen recently.
The Great Danes, making their sixth straight appearance in the 64-team field with the America East automatic bid, upset No. 5-seed Florida at the Carrier Dome a year ago and nearly upset No. 4-seed Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2015.
"It's tradition," Albany freshman guard Mackenzie Trpcic said. "Anything can happen. It's March."
The No. 16 seed is 1-91 in first-round play since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994, with the victory coming in 1998 when Harvard stunned top-seeded but short-handed Stanford.
"You go into this game and think if you're going to be a 15 or 16 seed, why not play on the biggest stage possible," Albany first-year coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. "The experience for our players is something they don't get every day. You go into this game and think, 'It's basketball and anything can happen.' You just hope you're on the right side of it."
The Great Danes have won six in a row and 12 out of 13 since falling to 9-10 following a loss to Maine on Jan. 22. They were the No. 2 seed for the America East tournament and knocked off Vermont 65-45 and Hartford 67-65 to advance to the final. Playing at home, Albany defeated No. 4 Maine 66-50.
Two players average in double figures for Albany -- senior guard Imani Tate (19.1) and junior wing Jessica Fequiere (12.4). The Great Danes insist that they, like a number of other UConn opponents, won't be beaten before the opening tip.
"A lot of it has to do with our preparation for this game," Trpcic said. "We treat it like any other team. You have to treat it like any other team when you look them. That's what we're going to do and what we've been doing."
To Auriemma, Albany belongs.
"The teams that win championships in their league obviously know how to win," Auriemma said. "I have often wondered why teams, like in America East, why they have a conference tournament? Unless that tournament is bringing in a lot of money, why have a conference tournament? Why not send your best team to the NCAA Tournament? Then the question is who's your best team, the team that won the tournament or the team that won the regular season. Albany has a knack of getting here."
The UConn-Albany winner will take on either No. 8 Syracuse or ninth-seeded Iowa State here Monday for a spot in the Sweet 16 at Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena.
For Chong, it's one and done the rest of the way.
"It's pretty amazing how far I've come," Chong said. "From freshman year, no one could have expected it would all turn out this way and to have the senior year I've had. But after these 32 games, I just want to go out with a bang."