March 25, 2012
KINGSTON, R.I. (AP) - Geno Auriemma knows UConn can keep pace with Penn State's high-powered offensive; he'd just prefer if the Huskies didn't have to.
The top-seeded Huskies will face the fourth-seeded Nittany Lions on Sunday in the Kingston regional semifinals. Gonzaga and Kentucky will meet in the second game for a spot in the regional final of the NCAA women's tournament.
Penn State has run its way through the first two rounds, averaging a whopping 87 1/2 points in its two victories. Still the Nittany Lions haven't faced a defense such as Connecticut, which is on pace to top its own NCAA record for scoring defense.
"I think we're going to be OK scoring points, but I think guarding them is going to be the difference in the game," Auriemma said. "We're going to have to do a great job of limiting their possessions."
The Huskies (31-4) are allowing just 45 points a game this season. They've picked that up in the first two rounds of the tournament, stymieing Kansas State in the second round by giving up an NCAA tournament record-low 26 points.
"I think they struggled in a lot of half-court games where the game is low scoring," Auriemma said. "Their strength is their ability to make people play at their pace, so I don't think either team wants to walk the ball up the floor and play a 55-48 kind of game. I don't think that's going to happen. It's a test of wills. They want to play their way, we want to play our way. Our two ways are similar. There are a couple things we do that they don't do, and hopefully we'll take advantage of those things."
Penn State coach Coquese Washington doesn't care at what pace the game is played at. She just is looking for one simple thing.
"A game where we're up one when the buzzer goes off - that would be a comfortable score for me," Washington said, laughing.
This is the Huskies' 19th straight trip to the round of 16, while the Nittany Lions advanced this far for the first time since 2004. Auriemma has been impressed with the way Washington, in her fifth season, has rebuilt the Penn State program.
"She's one of the most impressive young people that I've come across in a long, long time," he said.
Auriemma says he's admired Washington's career since she was an assistant at Notre Dame and helped the Irish win a national title in 2001.
"She's kind of got a whole lot of things in place," Auriemma said. "Notre Dame, an assistant there, a law school grad, trying to run a family. Just a lot, and doing it at a place like Penn State, where it's not just any school. ... I've got to tell you I'm really, really impressed with the job she has done. There may not be five other coaches in her age group that are better than she is."
Washington has mutual respect for Auriemma. Her fondest memory of the Hall of Famer was back when she was the associate head coach for Notre Dame.
"When I was at Notre Dame, I was pregnant with my son, Quenton," Washington said. "We come out before the game, and he rubs my belly with his hand. I said 'Geno, what are you doing', and he said 'I got to rub the baby.' That is one of my favorite memories about Geno. He's a really good guy, fun to coach against. He certainly has done so many wonderful things for our game."
Washington has done an incredible job rebuilding the Nittany Lions since taking over in 2007. She's got them back in the round of 16 for the first time since 2004, when they lost to Connecticut in the regional final.
They won their first Big Ten regular season title since 2004 this year. They also posted their highest win total since 2004-05. It's the second straight NCAA bid under Washington's watch for Penn State, once a Top 25 staple before slipping in the past few years of longtime coach Rene Portland's tenure.
Penn State (26-6) was able to advance to Kingston by winning two games at LSU, including beating the host team in the second round. Winning on the road has been no problem for this squad which was 7-1 away from home in Big Ten conference games this season.
"We've been pretty strong on the road all year," said guard Maggie Lucas, who is averaging 19.6 points this season. "We've gone into some tough environments and come out with wins. We're sure that they'll have a big crowd here and we're used to it."
DOTY AND LUCAS BOTH RIVALS AND FRIENDS: Germantown Academy coach Sherri Retif plans to attend the Penn State-Connecticut regional semifinal wearing a neutral shade of blue.
UConn's Caroline Doty and Penn State's Maggie Lucas both starred at the Pennsylvania prep school, where Retif says they were "legends."
"I actually went to the high school I went to because of (Doty)," said Lucas, who was two years behind her mentor. "I wanted to compete with her every day. She's an unbelievable competitor, a great friend, and I'm excited to be playing against her again."
Lucas took over as the starting point guard when Doty went down during her senior season with a torn ACL.
Doty, who has suffered through two other knee injuries in college, is averaging 5 points a game this season. Lucas averages almost 20 points a game and scored 30 in the Nittany Lions win over LSU.
"She was a great player in high school too, but to see her grow and keep getting better for the past two years in college and what she's done to the Penn State program is unbelievable, and I'm just happy to call her my friend," Doty said.
The two also are fierce competitors and spent part of their time off the court in prep school trying to one-up each other in a "prank war."
"Somehow, I always got a cake thrown in my face, and then I'd get in trouble with our coach," Lucas said. "We definitely were pranksters and would cause a little trouble."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he did not recruit Lucas, not because he didn't like her game, but because there was really no point.
"Maggie Lucas was set on going to Penn State from the time she was a sophomore in high school," he said. "It really didn't matter if anybody wanted to recruit her or didn't want to recruit her, she had made that decision that she was going to Penn State."
K-STATE COACH PICKING UCONN TO WIN IT ALL: Kansas State coach Deb Patterson is picking Connecticut to win an eighth national championship, even if the Huskies face Baylor in this season's title game.
Patterson's Wildcats lost 72-26 to UConn on Monday night and were routed three times by Baylor this season.
"I really just never pick against Connecticut," she said. "They're as versatile as you would have thought when they are shooting as well on the perimeter. ... I just think they have a versatility to them that makes them very dynamic."
But, she says the keys to a Baylor-UConn rematch, should it happen, will be the play of the Bears' 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner and UConn's guards.
"They both bring almost contradictory strengths to the floor," she said. "Each is in a position to impact the other's strength, and I think it will really come down, when all is said and done, to how Griner impacts the lane and how far Baylor is effective in extending out and forcing Connecticut's guard play. And how well Connecticut shoots that night."
K-State lost its games with Baylor this season by 35, 29 and 21 points. UConn also has lost to Baylor, 66-61 in December.