2014 Lincoln Regional Elite 8 Preview: Blair promises, "We will give them a show"

March 31, 2014 - 7:19pm
Will Texas A&M be able to contain UConn's Breanna Stewart as BYU did in the Sweet 16? And can the Aggies keep the Connecticut star bottled up for the full 40 minutes? We'll have the answers when the Elite Eight of the Lincoln Regional tips off on Monday night. (Photo by Dennis Hubbard)

Will Texas A&M be able to contain UConn's Breanna Stewart as BYU did in the Sweet 16? And can the Aggies keep the Connecticut star bottled up for the full 40 minutes? We'll have the answers when the Elite Eight of the Lincoln Regional tips off on Monday night. (Photo by Dennis Hubbard)

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Lincoln Regional is finally down to two teams, with the Elite Eight getting underway on Monday, March 31, 2014, at 9:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. CDT) at Pinnacle Bank Arena, in Lincoln, Neb. The regional final will feature top-seeded and undefeated Connecticut, who survived a bit of a scare in its Sweet 16 meeting with 12th-seeded BYU on Saturday, trailing the Cougars for much of the first half in the face of an unexpectedly tough BYU defense, before finding another gear and sweeping to a 70-51 win.

At the opposite end of the floor will be Texas A&M, who employed a stellar defensive effort to quash DePaul, on of the top-five scoring programs in the NCAA, 84-65, in second of Saturday's Lincoln Regional Sweet 16 games. The Huskies and the Aggies don't meet often, but they do have a bit of history, with UConn having routed Texas A&M, 81-50, in the last meeting between these two teams on Nov. 18, 2012, in College Station, Tex.

The Huskies enter this game as the overwhelming favorite, but shortly after his team's Sweet 16 victory over DePaul, Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair had a message to anyone who would rule his team out. Remember the national title in 2011, he reminded them. No one picked the Aggies to win that one either. "We'll give them a show!" Blair promised.

Elite Eight: (1) Connecticut (37-0) v. (3) (3) Texas A&M (27-8)

Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska.

When: Monday, March 31, 9:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. CDT)

Coaches: Geno Auriemma (Connecticut); Gary Blair (Texas A&M)

Broadcast: ESPN

All-time series: 2-0, Connecticut

Last meeting: Connecticut defeated Texas A&M, 81-50, in College Station, Tex., Nov. 18, 2012

Points per game: Connecticut  - 83.1 ppg, 47.1 opp. ppg; Texas A&M – 70.2 ppg,  58.9 opp. ppg)

Probable starting lineups

     Connecticut -- Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, forward (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rbg, .426 3FG%)

                              Breanna Stewart, forward (19.7 ppg, 8.2 rbg, 3.0 apg, 2.8 bpg)

                              Stefanie Dolson, center (12.4 ppg, 9.1 rbg, 3.4 apg, 2.2 bpg)

                              Moriah Jefferson, guard (10.1 ppg, 3.3 rbg, 4.8 apg, ATO: 2.9:1)

                              Bria Hartley, guard (16.4 ppg, 3.6 rbg, 4.4 apg, 1.7 spg, ATO: 2.1:1)

      Texas A&M -- Courtney Williams, forward ( 13.6 ppg, 5.5 rbg, 2.0 apg, ATO: 0.7:1 )

                              Karla Gilbert, center (11.3 ppg,7.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 1.6 t-opg)

                              Tori Scott, guard (6.8 ppg)

                              Jordan Jones, guard (7.0 ppg, 7.4 apg, 2.3 spg, ATO: 2.4:1)

                             Courtney Walker, guard (15.7 ppg, 4.2 rbg,2.5 apg, 1.4 spg, ATO: 1.2:1)

Analysis: Connecticut, the number one overall seed in the tournament, advanced to the Elite Eight with its win over a BYU team that gave Connecticut challenges in the first half. Breanna Stewart, one of the best players in the country, was held to only four first-half points before finishing with 16. The challenge for opponents, however, is the multiplicity of Connecticut's weapons. If Stewart has an "off" night, by her high standards, there is  Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to fill the gap with 19 points.

Three of the UConn starting five -- Stewart, Dolson and Hartley -- were named today as USBWA All-Americans. Mosqueda-Lewis's numbers are such that she would likely have also made the cut, had she not missed so much of the season with illness and injuries. Connecticut’s size and speed will also likely give Texas A&M some challenges.

The Aggies also have considerable athleticism, and some height in the person of the 6-5 Gilbert. Gilbert has a tendency at times to be foul prone, and it will be essential for A&M to keep her on the floor on Monday if they are to have any chance of success against the twin towers of Dolson and Stewart.

A&M also comes into the Elite Eight with its defense peaking at the right time. Coach Blair was quick to point that out, “Nobody gives credit to Jones and Walker for what they did defensively tonight against DePaul. Yes, we can score points, but we can defend.”

Indeed, they can, having swarmed DePaul’s shooters Saturday, causing one of the nation's top-five offenses to shoot just 35 percent in first half. Of course, Connecticut also prides itself in its intense and disciplined defense, which has held opponents, including several of the nation's top teams, to fewer than 50 points per game all season.

Guards: Connecticut excels in its guard play, with Hartley and Jefferson both among the 22 finalists for this year's Nancy Lieberman Award. Blair feels strongly that his guards, Courtney Walker and Jordan Jones, in particular, are just as good but under-appreciated.

He has a case: Jones, for example, leads this year's NCAA Tournament in assists, and ranks fourth overall in the NCAA in that category this season. Though just a sophomore, she was named this year's SEC Co-Defenseive Player of the Year. Walker, also a sophomore, was named to the All-SEC first team.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma doesn't disagree. “I think she’s one of the best guards in America today that a lot of people don’t even talk about," he said of A&M's Walker. "I liked her in high school and I like her even more now."

Still, both Walker and Jones, as noted, are just sophomores, who were not around for A&M's last deep NCAA Tournament run. UConn's Jefferson, too, is a sophomore, who played with Walker and Jones on the same AAU team in Dallas. Indeed, the three having been reconnecting at the tournament. “We have been texting and facebook, but Monday night is all about business,” said Jefferson.  “We were able to connect at Five Guys on Thursday and hang out and have a burger, but Monday is about Texas A&M against UConn,” added Walker.

Still, UConn's Hartley brings the experience of a senior to bear in this match-up, and with Jefferson also on hand for Connecticut's run to last season's national title, both the UConn guards have experience playing on the collegiate game's biggest stage.

Advantage: Connecticut

Forwards and centers: Connecticut has Brianna Stewart, an All-American and last season's Final Four MVP, anchoring the paint alongside senior, and fellow All-American Stephanie Dolson, in one of the best -- if not the best -- frontcourts in the country. Though Stewart did not have a great game on Saturday, held to just four points on 3-of-9 shooting in the opening half, Stewart averages 19.7 and rarely has two "off" games in a row. Both Stewart and Dolson, who adds both height and a strong presence on the boards, have range; both can step out and knock down the 3-pointer. 

Add juniors Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (12.1 ppg) on the wing and 6-3 forward Kiah Stokes in relief and it would be hard to contemplate a stronger frontcourt combo.

The Aggies counter with 6-4 center Karla Gilbert, a senior who averages 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounders for the Aggies. Complementing Gilbert is 6-1 sophmore Courtney Williams, the team's second-leading scorer, who is averaging 13.1 points and 5.5 rebounds. The Aggies can also call upon 6-1 junior forward Achris Ade, who got 27 starts this season, but has been coming off the bench of late as Blair has opted for a three-guard starting line-up. Ade averaged 6.9 points and the same number of rebounds. Waiting on the bench is 6-7 center Rachel Mitchell, a redshirt sophomore to bring off the bench. Connecticut struggled against Jennifer Hamsen 6-7 center from BYU, but Hamsen was a regular contributor for BYU, while Mitchell is still a work in progress, having averaged only 7.3 minutes per game in 30 appearances this season, and producing only 1.2 points and 2.0 rebounds per outing.

Advantage: Connecticut

Bench: Connecticut has been plagued with injuries this season, so their bench is not that deep. The Huskies played only six players for significant minutes on Saturday. “Six is probably not enough. I think any time you are playing in the NCAA Tournament, fouls are a huge issue," said Auriemma. With Mosqueda-Lewis back in action, UConn's depth crisis has eased a bit, however, with nine players available who have averaged 15 or more points per game.

Depending on whether Blair decides to go big or quick, either 5-10 point guard Tori Scoott or 6-1 forward Achiri Ade will be first off the bench. Curtyce Knox and Chelsea Jennings also see significant minutes off the bench for the Aggies, though neither contributes as many as 3.5 points per game. From there, the bench falls off sharply in both playing time and production.

Advantage: Even.

Coaching: Geno Auriemma has transformed Connecticut into national power with eight national championships and more than 800 career wins. One more title would move UConn lift the Huskies past Tennessee and into sole possession of the women's record for NCAA title wins.  i

Coach Gary Blair has elevated Texas A&M from a Big-12 also ran into an elite program, taking them to the national championship three years ago with upsets of Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame along the way. Still, though Blair is no novice plainly knows how to get the job done at the highest levels, he still has not come p with the formula for beating UConn. “We have played them twice in the last two years and lost by 30 and 31," Blair conceded. "I guess we need to try something different, so we are going to try to do is play within ourselves and expand our limits. Think out of the box.”

Advantage: Connecticut

Prediction: Connecticut. Texas A&M would need to play a perfect game, and hope for a Husky slump, to pull off the upset. They will need to slow down the Husky offense and keep them out of the paint.

Still, Blair and the Aggies are conceding nothing. "It’s hard to beat a team four times. Several years ago Baylor beat us three times but we won the fourth on our way to the national title. I’m interested in the third time,” said Blair with a grin.

Connecticut needs to just play their game. They have not lost since March 12, 2013 against Notre Dame (61-59). They survived a minor scare on Saturday, but are likely to now have that out of their system. “There are always one of these games in the tournament. I would hope there is only one,“ said Auriemma.