STORRS, Conn. - With an unbeaten record and a top three RPI and strength of schedule nationally, the University of Connecticut women's basketball arrived at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 6 knowing an NCAA tournament bid was in its future regardless of how it did in the American Athletic Conference tournament final.
Fast forward to last Sunday in Loretto, Pennsylvania, when Saint Francis entertained Robert Morris for the Northeast Conference tournament title.
"You win and you advance, you lose and you go home," Saint Francis guard Jessica Kovatch said Friday. "Everyone has that mentality that you have to put everything out there. One bad game and your season is over."
The Red Flash's 66-56 victory gave them the NEC's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. Their reward was a No. 16-seed and a date with unbeaten and top-seeded UConn in an Albany (New York) Regional first-round game Saturday at 11 a.m. at Gampel Pavilion.
Sure the Huskies celebrated when they beat South Florida for their fifth straight AAC Tournament title. But at the final buzzer at DeGol Arena last Sunday, there was pure joy.
"At that moment I was excited for our championship," Kovatch said. "The last two years we were in the league tournament and we lost in the semifinals and quarterfinals. That's the worst feeling. This year we had the talent and needed to put it together. There's pressure there but I like that and I use it as motivation. Anything can happen in a playoff game. We didn't play our best game in the final but it was still enough to win. We went into every game knowing that we had to give our all. We're playing for our season.
"But after that, knowing we were going to the NCAA tournament, it was an awesome feeling."
Saint Francis has its work cut out for it here. The Red Flash are 0-11 in their previous NCAA appearances including losses to UConn in 1999 and 2002 by an average of 50.0 points. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994, the 16-seeds are 1-97 against the No. 1 seeds with the only win by Harvard in 1998 over a Stanford team that was missing three injured starters.
But if it was a choice to have a tournament with what were considered the top 64 teams or a tournament that included automatic qualifiers from mid-major and lower level conferences, UConn coach Geno Auriemma would choose the latter every time.
"I remember when we were that mid-major that was trying to figure out a way to make the NCAA tournament and actually be successful in the NCAA tournament," Auriemma said. "So I would never want to take that opportunity away from anyone. If you're playing in a league and you're a Division I program and your league has a championship and you win that championship, you should be able to compete for the national championship.
"That's the beauty of college basketball. This isn't like some of the other sports in college where it's predetermined who's going to be playing in the national championship based on your preseason ranking. This is actually earned on the court and everybody has a chance to win. And that's what makes our tournament exciting. You'd say, 'Well, those teams never win.' It doesn't matter if they win or don't win. They have the opportunity to win and that is basically what this is all about.
"Denying teams the opportunity ... And I don't want to hear anymore about this, 'We were 18-12 but we played in a really tough league.' Well, obviously, that league was too tough for you. You should have been better. This isn't about we played in a great league and we finished eighth, ninth, or 10th. That makes you better than some team that won the championship in another league? We're going to find out, aren't we? You're going to have to play one of those teams. So prove it. I like that."
What Auriemma would like to see from the one-bid conferences is have their regular season champion, not the tournament winner, receive the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Three years ago, Bryant University from Rhode Island and Central Connecticut State shared the NEC regular season but it was St. Francis-Brooklyn, which was 12-18 and the No. 5 seed for the league tournament, that won three games to earn the NEC automatic bid. The Terriers would lose to UConn.
"So for every celebration that you see when there's an upset in one of those conferences, there's a devastated bunch of kids who go, 'Those last five months meant nothing. Now we can't play in the NCAA tournament,' " Auriemma said. "We've been in that situation where we've played a team from a one-bid conference that had a losing record or 15-14 or whatever. It hurts the conference. It hurts those kids who spent five months proving they were the best team in the league. If you're going to get seven or eight teams from your league, that's one thing. If you're going to get one, you'd better send your best team. And your best team isn't always the one that had three good days. Sometimes it is."
Saint Francis (24-9) is.
The Red Flash have won 15 of their last 16 games and are led by Kovatch, the second-leading scorer in the country behind Iowa's Megan Gustafson. The Phillipsburg, New Jersey, native takes an average of 19 shots per game and shoots 43.7 percent.
"She scores in a number of ways," said UConn guard Kia Nurse, who figures to draw the defensive assignment. "She does a great job of getting into her shot quickly from anywhere on the court. Her range is pretty deep. Then she does a good job of drawing contact and trying to get into the defender. It will be a matter of our team defense playing great defense against her."
UConn (32-0) is seeking its 11th straight Final Four and 25th consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. The Huskies' starting five is as good as anyone's and their sixth man, Azura Stevens, was the Most Outstanding Player of the AAC tournament.
The 11-day break between games helped their walking wounded, but the Huskies are anxious to get going.
"Everyone in the country is kind of banged up now and everyone has had a long season," UConn forward Gabby Williams said. "We're just going to approach it like it's any other day. I don't think our focus or our energy will go down just because of fatigue or being banged up."
The UConn-Saint Francis winner will play either No. 8 Miami-Florida or ninth-seeded Quinnipiac Monday night. The Hurricanes and Bobcats tip off here at approximately 1:30 p.m. today
In her three seasons at Maryland, Saint Francis graduate student forward Ace Harrison played in one game against UConn - the 2015 NCAA Final Four semifinal at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.
Midway through the second half Harrison hit a 15-foot jumper from the elbow with the Huskies' Kiah Stokes running at her. But three minutes later she had her baseline jumper blocked by Breanna Stewart. In her 10 minutes, she had the two points, two rebounds and an assist in what was an 81-58 win for UConn.
Three years later, Harrison hopes her experience will help her Red Flash teammates against the Huskies.
"Connecticut is very aggressive team and they're going to play with everything they have," Harrison said. "I've told my teammates, 'Look, we've been in some tough situations and faced good teams. I know those games won't prepare us completely for this but it is something to fall back that we can be confident that we can go out there and compete.' We have to, no matter what the score is, go out there and give our all. That's all I can ask of them as a senior and teammate. We have to keep going until there's nothing left in the tank."
Harrison, the two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year, is averaging 10.9 points and 7.7 rebounds for the Red Flash (24-9).
She spent three years at Maryland, redshirting her first season. She received her bachelor's degree in journalism and American studies in 2016 and moved on to Saint Francis as a graduate student.
During her time with the Terrapins she was a teammate of UConn graduate assistant Chloe Pavlech.
"Chloe, Chloe, Chloe," Harrison said with a laugh. "She was one of the first people I met when I got to Maryland. She's a great, great person and we actually had an opportunity to live with each other my last year at Maryland.
"With her, you could never leave anything in the fridge. And she just told me this story recently. There was one time I looked in the fridge and thought, 'I know I had juice in here. Where did my Gatorade go?' Chloe finally admitted that whenever I would put my stuff in the fridge she was the one coming around to drink my Gatorade and eat my food.
"Chloe was so welcoming, so friendly. I remember how on my official visit she made me so comfortable. We really just clicked. Chloe was always there for me and she made my time at Maryland unforgettable."
Harrison will look for another unforgettable moment Saturday. The Red Flash have never won a NCAA tournament (0-11) and no one is giving them much of a chance here.
But that's why you play the games.
"For me, it's great to go out the way that I came in," Harrison said. "But for a lot of these kids, this is their first time and I'm so happy that they'll experience it. To share that with them means the world to me."
UConn reserve freshman guard Mikayla Coombs will miss the NCAA tournament as shed is being treated for deep vein thrombosis.
"It just happened recently," Auriemma said. "It's fortunate we were able to catch it. She had been complaining for about three or four days. Finally our medical staff went through as many tests as you possibly can and decided that this is a situation that needs to be monitored.
"She's doing great. There's nothing to worry about. But they thought playing basketball was not in her best interests."
Coombs, from Buford, Georgia, has played in 25 games totaling 168 points and has 28 points, 21 rebounds, 12 assists, and 17 steals. She had six points in a win at Temple Jan. 21. She did not score in 14 minutes in wins over Tulane and Cincinnati at the AAC tournament.
UConn's Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson are finalists for the 2018 Naismith Trophy as Player of the Year. The other finalists are South Carolina senior A'ja Wilson and Louisville sophomore Asia Durr. Earlier this week, Samuelson was named as a finalist for the 2018 Wade Trophy as WBCA Player of the Year ... Today is the silver anniversary of UConn's last NCAA first-round loss. Louisville's win is also the last time the Huskies have lost an NCAA tournament game at Gampel Pavilion and the last time they lost back-to-back games. "A lot of things have happened in the last 25 years," Auriemma said. "I think back to the first couple years when you get into the NCAA tournament and the excitement and the level of anticipation that goes into, 'When is our game? Who are we playing?' You'd like to be able to hold onto that forever, but unfortunately as expectations change, things become a little more muddied." … About 6,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday's doubleheader.