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Bridgeport regional, first round preview

Diamond Battles runs the floor. UCF Athletics photo.

March Madness begins with the first and second rounds on the home court of the top 16 seeds. As the overall sixth-best team in the field, UConn hosts a “pod” in Storrs Saturday and Monday.

The first game (1 p.m. ET Saturday) features the Huskies as a No. 2 seed against No. 15 Mercer, winner of four straight Southern Conference titles. A 15-seed has never won in the women’s tournament.

The second contest (3:30 p.m. ET) is an all-Florida affair between No. 7 UCF and No. 10 Florida. The teams have met 26 times. The Gators, a lower seed this year and playing without their best athlete, have won all the previous meetings.

Expect UConn to dominate the first round, and win the second round handily.

The Knights ought to break the streak with a win over a short-handed and lower seeded Florida, for the chance to face the Huskies on Monday.

UConn has defeated UCF in all 11 of their previous meetings.

The Huskies should move on to the Bridgeport Regional.

No. 2 University of Connecticut Huskies

Campus: Storrs, Ct

Record: 25-5; 16-1 Big East conference

Coach: Geno Auriemma, 37th season at UConn

How they got here: Big East Tournament Champions; Big East regular season champions

Players to Watch: Christyn Williams, 5-11 guard; Olivia Nelson-Ododa, 6-5 forward; Paige Bueckers, 5-11 guard; Aaliyah Edwards, 6-3 forward

UConn, of course, is a perennial contender in the NCAAs, though their last (of 11) National Championships was in 2016 – an eternity to the Husky faithful. Those fans forget that five years passed between championships one and two.

The team looked unusually vulnerable for most of this season, as injury and illness stripped them of their expected depth and, in a loss to Louisville, all of its point guards. UConn lost at home to an unranked team for the first time in over a decade, and even lost a conference game, to a talented Villanova team that eventually earned a No. 11 seed in the Wichita Region.

That loss seems to have flipped a winning switch for the Huskies. They followed it with 24 and 14-point wins over tournament teams DePaul and Creighton. In their final eight games before the NCAA Tournament, UConn’s stifling defense crushed their opponents. The most points scored in that stretch was 51. The average was 40.

Defense led to offense, and they averaged 81.75 points during that stretch.

Paige Bueckers readies to pass. Meg Kelly photo.

For the last five of those games, the Huskies dressed the entire team for the first time this year. Paige Bueckers returned after missing 19 games. Although she has played limited minutes and has seemed tentative at times, she was the best player in the nation last season as a freshman. It is reported that the 10-day rest between the Big East and NCAA tournaments have allowed her to get in physical and emotional shape.

If Bueckers can perform close to herself of last year, her addition to a team already dominating recent competition could be the key to a 14th straight trip to the Final Four.

Senior Christyn Williams is playing the best basketball of her career, and is poised to shine in the postseason as she did last year. Sophomore Aaliyah Edwards has regained her focus, and has been a dominant defensive and rebounding force as she was in last year’s tournament.

Senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa has been perhaps the most consistent player for the last two months, anchoring the defense inside, blocking shots, and leading the team in assists.

UConn’s five losses, the most since 2005, were all against tournament teams. The Huskies also won nine games against teams in the tournament. UConn has never played Mercer. It is 2-0 all-time against Florida, and 11-0 all-time against UCF.

The last time the Huskies entered the tournament with five losses (2005) was also the only other time they played in a Bridgeport Regional as the No. 2 seed. They lost in the Elite Eight that year to No. 4 Duke, in overtime.

On the other hand, the only time UConn played the first four rounds in Connecticut with a Final Four in Minneapolis, they won it all. That was the first of the eleven, in 1995.

No. 15 Mercer Bears

Campus: Macon, Georgia

Record: 23-6; 13-1 conference

Coach: Susie Gardner, 11th season at Mercer

How they got in: Southern Conference Tournament Winner (4th year straight)

Players to watch: Amoria Neal-Tysor, 5-6 guard; Shannon Titus, 6-2 forward; Jaron Dougherty, 6-2 forward; Erin Houpt, 5-6 guard

The Bears won their fourth straight Southern Conference title to reach the NCAA tournament. Two seniors, two grad transfers, and a freshman start for Mercer, but Coach Susie Gardner’s rotation includes eight players. Only one, 6-2 senior Allie Thane, is over six feet tall.

Amoria Neal-Tysor looks up court. James Thomas photo.

Senior Amoria Neal-Tysor has scored 20 or more points in 10 games this season, including 34, 20, and 26 in three post-season games. The 5-6 guard hit 40 of 101 three point attempts, and leads the team in assists.

Freshman guard Erin Houpt is the only other deep threat, shooting three quarters of her attempts from beyond the arc, hitting 41 percent of them, while averaging 9.2 points per game.

The forwards, grad Shannon Titus and senior Jaron Dougherty, play above their 6-0 height, averaging 13.4 rebounds and 22.3 points between them. Titus has grabbed 74 offensive boards this season.

Much of their scoring comes from mid-range jumpers, and every player is comfortable taking them.

Defensively, the Bears allow 56.0 points per contest, 32nd in the NCAA. They played just two NCAA tournament teams this season, losing by 15 to Georgia, and by 14 to UCF. They have never played their first round opponent, No. 2 UConn.

No. 7 University of Central Florida Knights

Campus: Orlando, Florida

Record: 25-3; 14-1 AAC conference

Coach: Katie Abrahamson-Henderson (Fifth season at UCF)

How they got in: AAC Tournament Winner (2nd year straight); regular season winner

Players to watch:  Diamond Battles,5-8 guard (AAC Player of the Year; Defensive Player of the Year; Tournament Most Outstanding Player); Destiny Thomas, 6-2 forward; Masseny Kaba, 6-3 forward; Brittney Smith, 6-3 forward

UCF is about defense. They lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 47.5 points per game. They do it without fouling, 14th fewest in the country. The Knights average 11 steals per game.

Diamond Battles runs the floor. UCF Athletics photo.

Senior Diamond Battles ruled the AAC this season, picking up Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Her 13.7 points per game leads her team, and she shot a credible .356 from beyond the arc. She is, however, a “high volume shooter,” connecting on just 38 percent of her field goal attempts.

Senior Destiny Thomas leads the team in rebounding with 7.9 per game. The 6-2 forward is not much of a scorer, however, shooting just .421 and averaging 5.0 points per game.

The post is anchored by the duo of grad Masseny Kaba and senior Brittney Smith, both 6-3, who average 20 points and 12 boards combined.

The Knights played seven games against tournament teams, defeating Arkansas, Mercer, and South Florida (three times). They lost games against Iowa and Tennessee, but by only eight points each. In those seven games, only Iowa (61 points) scored more than 55 points.

UCF has faced Florida 26 times, and never won. This year could break that streak.

No. 10 University of Florida Gators

Campus: Gainesville, Florida

Record: 20-10; 10-6 SEC conference

Coach: Kelly Rae Finley, first season

How they got here: At large selection; lost in SEC quarterfinals to Mississippi

Players to Watch: Zippy Broughton, 5-7 guard (10.5 PPG); Jordyn Merritt, 6-3 forward; Nina Rickards, 5-9 guard

Florida returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016, when they lost in the first round. Coach Kelly Rae Finley – a Naismith Coach of the Year finalist – turned the Gators into a contender, playing an active, tough, and defensive-minded brand of basketball, and winning the most SEC games in years.

Florida’s tournament hopes were seriously damaged when guard Kiki Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury in the SEC tournament first round. The grad student led them all season in points, assists, and steals, and was a close second in rebounds.

Without the engine that kept their high-energy team running, Florida must regroup with little time to prepare. Senior transfer Zippy Broughton, who has scored in double figures in 13 of the last 14 games, including 26 in the quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt, is the next obvious leader. A player with quick hands on defense, and quick feet to the rim, Broughton was the Gator’s second leading scorer and second most frequent shooter, but will need to improve on her 36 percent shooting (.310 from three).

Jodryn Merritt runs the play. Tim Casey/UAA Communications.

Florida play nine deep, now eight, so Broughton and her teammates will all need career games if they are to advance. Jordyn Merritt, who averaged 10.7 points and 5.2 boards in 22 minutes, will likely play much more. She is the best three-point shooter on the team, at 41 percent, though she averaged just under 3 attempts a game.

Florida played nine games against tournament teams, defeating Tennessee, Arkansas, Dayton, Kentucky, and LSU. They lost to LSU, twice to Georgia, to NC State, and to South Carolina.

They have defeated first-round opponent UCF in all 26 previous contests.

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