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UConn women’s basketball opponent preview: The contenders

South Carolina and two Pac-12 opponents headline the Huskies’ schedule.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Carolina at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Unsurprisingly, the highlights of UConn women’s basketball’s schedule will once again come from its non-conference slate. South Carolina figures to be a title contender again this season, and the late January matchup is the marquee game on the Huskies’ schedule. Additionally, two Pac-12 teams will also give UConn some tough tests throughout the season.

UCLA (December 11)

2020-21 Season: 17-6, lost in 2nd round of NCAA tournament

No. 20 in preseason AP Poll

UCLA couldn’t catch a break last season as its roster suffered from injuries and multiple international freshman recruits being unable to enter the country. That bad luck seems to have carried over to the 2021-22 season, as sophomore Emily Bessoir will miss the season with an ACL tear after a promising freshman campaign.

Still, the Bruins boast one of the most dynamic guards in the country in junior Charisma Osborne. Osborne can create her own shots, score in multiple ways and is also a pesky defender. She’ll present a tough challenge for the Huskies’ backcourt.

UCLA also returns Camryn Brown, who missed most of last season with an injury, Natalie Chou and Chantel Horvat — all of whom will be important pieces in the Bruins’ rotation. They also add a familiar opponent for UConn in IImar’I Thomas, a graduate transfer from Cincinnati, who led the country in minutes and ranked top ten in scoring last season.

Angela Dugalić, a transfer from Oregon who spent her summer playing in Eurobasket and the Tokyo Olympics with the Serbian national team, and Gina Conti, a grad transfer who assisted on over a quarter of Wake Forest’s baskets while on the floor last year, are also standout additions to the Bruins’ roster.

Louisville (December 19)

2020-21 Season: 26-4, lost in Elite Eight

No. 6 in preseason AP Poll

Louisville has a tall task heading into the season: trying to replace the production of Dana Evans, who scored over 20 points per game and posted the second highest usage rate in the ACC last season. Filling that hole will take time, so while the Cardinals fall just outside the top five in the preseason poll, they will likely be one of the easier opponents on this list.

Louisville does return both of its 2020-21 freshman standouts, Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran. The matchup between Van Lith and Bueckers in the backcourt will be the most talked about storyline in this game, and the Cardinals will certainly look to her to help replace Evans’ role as the primary scorer and facilitator on the offensive end.

Cochran also shined in the post at times last season and could be a good early season test for UConn’s frontcourt. Louisville also returns its second leading scorer from last season, Kianna Smith. Smith and Van Lith both shot over 37 percent from deep last season, so perimeter defense will be important from the Huskies.

Oregon (January 17)

2020-21 Season: 15-9, lost in Sweet 16 of NCAA Tournament

No. 10 in preseason AP Poll

Injuries and a tough ending stretch of the schedule hit Oregon’s stock heading into the NCAA tournament last year hard. The Ducks racked up six of their nine losses of the season in February or later. Still, if Oregon can keep the trio of stars it returns healthy and on the court together, they should rebound in 2021-22.

Most notably, the Ducks return 6-foot-7 Sedona Prince. Nagging injuries resulted in missed games and minutes restrictions throughout last season, but if Prince can be largely injury free this year, she figures to be one of the tougher matchups the Huskies will face in the paint this season. Paired inside with Nyara Sabally, the younger sister of former Oregon standout Satou Sabally, Oregon will be a very tough matchup for UConn’s frontcourt. The Ducks also bring back Te-Hina Paopao, who was among the country’s best freshman last season. This trio will be tough to beat this season, but the Ducks will likely need a couple more pieces to really step up in order to have a shot at handing UConn a loss.

South Carolina (January 27)

2020-21 Season: 26-5, lost in the Final Four

No. 1 in preseason AP Poll

South Carolina will easily be the biggest test the Huskies face this season, and if all goes according to plan, we should get this matchup twice — in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 22 and in Columbia on Jan. 27. Much like the Huskies, the Gamecocks return an entire Final Four roster and layer on even more elite talent for the upcoming season.

At the core of this South Carolina team is Aliyah Boston, who can be expected to be the best center in the country and a national player of the year candidate. Boston will likely be the toughest individual matchup up UConn faces this season. Destanni Henderson, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Victoria Saxton and Laeticia Amihere (who also spent the summer with the Canadian national team) will also reprise major roles in the Gamecocks’ rotation.

In addition to the team that visited Storrs last season, South Carolina adds Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso in the frontcourt, creating one of, if not the best frontcourt in the country. Cardoso, who the Huskies faced in the second round of the 2021 NCAA tournament, had a standout freshman year and at 6-foot-7 is another challenging matchup for UConn. Additionally, the Gamecocks have the top ranked recruiting class in the country, featuring the three top-five recruits in Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin.

Tennessee (February 6)

2020-21 Season: 17-8, lost in second round of NCAA Tournament

No. 15 in preseason AP poll

Tennessee primarily makes it on this list for its size. The Volunteers once again look to have one of the tallest teams in the country, making this game a great test for UConn’s frontcourt. By the time this matchup actually rolls around in February, it may not be deserving of a place on the contenders list but for now, the Huskies have some questions to answer inside when facing up against bigger opponents.

With Rennia Davis graduating and moving on to the WNBA, this Tennessee roster is not quite as stacked as last year’s. Still, the Vols return Rae Burrell, who can be expected to be among some of the best in the nation this season. Tamari Key and Jordan Horston also impressed, especially late in the season in 2021, and could be poised to be breakout stars this year.