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GIVEN HOW THOROUGHLY Connecticut dominated the regular season—the Huskies led the NCAA in scoring margin (30.5 points per game) while trailing for little more than 45 out of the 1,320 minutes they played all year—it's no surprise that the team was also the dominant topic of conversation heading into the postseason. Count the Huskies' glass-half-empty coach among those who grew tired of the constant praise his program was receiving. "If I was home watching on TV, I would be a little nauseated listening to them describe Connecticut, Connecticut, Connecticut," Geno Auriemma said after his Huskies were awarded the tournament's top seed for the 12th time in school history. "After a while I couldn't even listen anymore."
Had he stayed tuned, however, he would've heard all of that awe and adulation wither into doubt. More than a few experts thought that success had come a little too easily to the 33-0 Huskies and wondered if any of their games had truly tested them for postseason play. But in blowout home victories over 16th-seeded Vermont (104-65) and eighth-seeded Florida (87-59) in the subregional games in Storrs, the Huskies served notice that the opposition must find an answer for them, and not vice versa.
What's more, these teams would have to match Connecticut's stratospherically high intensity level. "Coach always harps on how we have to approach every game the same way," Renee Montgomery said, "because when you try to turn it on and off, it might not be there."
In the first round no player was more dialed in than the Huskies' Tina Charles. Afforded a sizable matchup advantage over Vermont, whose starters included just one player taller than 6' 1", the 6' 4" Charles operated unfettered in the paint. She had a game-high 32 points on 13-of-14 shooting, along with 11 rebounds and three blocks—the first of which came just 48 seconds in. "It was important to set the tone," said Charles, who ended her afternoon with 13:34 left and just two points shy of her career high. "We didn't play for a week, and everyone was anxious."
Likewise, Florida couldn't wait to subject Connecticut to the physical style of play that had helped the Gators to a 70-57 first-round victory over Temple. But the Huskies soon had the Gators regretting their aggressiveness. Two offensive fouls in the game's opening 92 seconds kept Florida's leading scorer, senior guard Sha Brooks (16.7 points per game), shackled to the bench for most of the first half.
Florida's most costly penalty came with fewer than six minutes to play in the first half and Connecticut leading 27-20. That's when Gators freshman guard Trumae Lucas jumped into Montgomery as the Huskies point guard was releasing a three-pointer. The shot, which swished through the cylinder as Montgomery fell to the floor, halted a three-minute-long Huskies' field goal drought. Montgomery's ensuing free throw conversion capped a four-point play that sparked a 20-6 run to end the half and quashed the Florida threat for good.
"That's what I really like about this team," Auriemma said after the win. "They sense when it's time and then they do what they're really good at." No matter how stiff the test, it seems, the Huskies never settle for merely making the grade. They have to set the curve, too.