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Connecticut anticipates a challenge in UCLA

Connecticut is the odds-on favorite to win the National Championship this year, and Coach Geno Auriemma assembled an early-season schedule to test how much those predictions connect to reality as the season begins.

After opening the season in Ohio against No. 14 Stanford, the Huskies flew back to Connecticut, played two ranked opponents (No. 25 Cal and No. 14 Maryland) two days apart this past weekend, and took a 9 p.m. Sunday flight to play No. 5 UCLA tonight.

With four returning starters – three of them All-Americans – and a point guard who played half the minutes last year, no team returned the scoring power and defensive experience of the Huskies. Of course, all those preseason predictions come with the unspoken caveat, “absent serious injury.” And UConn has already been bitten by that bug, though only temporarily. All-American Katie Lou Samuelson sustained an injury in the first half of Friday’s victory over California – a badly bruised left foot – that will sideline her indefinitely. She will not play against the Bruins.

Yet, the Huskies have certainly been dominant in the first three contests. They crushed Stanford, 78-53, limiting the Cardinal to four points in the second period. They overpowered Cal, holding the Golden Bears to three points in the third quarter (without Samuelson). And against Maryland, as Auriemma had to “settle” for replacing Samuelson in the starting lineup with junior Azura’ Stevens. They overwhelmed Maryland, 97-72, leading by 34 heading into the fourth quarter, by which time all the starters had been relegated to the bench.

Stevens, who played two seasons at Duke and practiced with the UConn all last year, is already on postseason awards lists, and was effective in all phases of the game coming off the bench in the first two contests. She also was clearly ready for her starting debut in Connecticut. Most encouraging to Auriemma and the Huskies was Stevens’ intensity and effectiveness on defense – an area of her game which has been considered a weakness by many. She played hard, hustled at both ends of the court, and demonstrated the fitness to play extensive minutes at a frantic pace favored by both the Huskies and Maryland.

Despite convincing displays of superiority, however, Auriemma is concerned about facing UCLA tonight. First of all, it will be a contest between the two best scoring point guards in the nation: the Bruin’s Jordin Canada and the Huskies’ Crystal Dangerfield. Canada, a senior, has averaged 17.3 points and eight assists per game while shooting .636 from beyond the arc to start the season. Dangerfield averages 16 points, four assists, and sunk 10 of her first 12 threes before going 0-5 against Maryland. Both guards are quick, see the floor well, and have multifaceted scoring potential. And while Dangerfield may have more shooters to feed, Auriemma is impressed with UCLA.

“They’re really good,” he said. “Their transition game, their rebounding. . . .I don’t know that there’s any more athletic teams than UCLA in the country. And (UCLA forward/center)  Monique Billings, she’s ridiculous, I marvel when I watch her play.”

Billings averages 17.3 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, and brings an on-court presence that strikes fear into opponents. The Bruins have a plus-ten rebounding margin, while the Huskies were out-rebounded by both Stanford and California.

Furthermore, the challenge to UConn in facing a very athletic team was evident against Maryland. The Terrapins have a team full of highly-athletic players with quick hands. Displaying a coordinated team defense, Coach Brenda Frese’s young squad forced the Husky starters into an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers, even while the same youngsters withered under the relentless offensive and defensive attack by UConn.

UCLA defeated No. 8 Baylor handily on Saturday, 82-68. So, tonight’s contest could be the Huskies’ biggest mountain in this challenging young season. Furthermore, UConn will have a bit of jet lag, and more importantly, the game is on the Bruin’s home court, Pauley Pavilion – a place with a history that even awes the jaded Auriemma.

“It’s like walking into Lambeau Field [home of the Green Bay Packers and legendary Coach Vince Lombardi]. It’s just a special place,” Auriemma said.

The game is at 7:30 PT, and will be on ESPNU.