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Notebook: After trying regular season, UConn women’s basketball earns spot in Bridgeport Regional

Plus, Dorka Juhász talks about playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, why Paige Bueckers doesn’t need extra motivation to play in the Final Four and more.

The UConn women’s basketball team opens up the NCAA Tournament against Mercer at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

As UConn struggled through its worst regular season since 2004-05, one of the biggest questions facing the team centered on whether the Huskies would be placed in the Bridgeport Regional — which would allow them to stay in-state and play in front of a friendly crowd — or sent to one of the three other locations.

The NCAA’s initial bracket reveals throughout the regular season put UConn first in Spokane and later Greensboro. But after a strong performance in the Big East Tournament — combined with losses from other teams vying for a 2-seed, the Huskies ultimately ended up in Bridgeport.

While the decision almost certainly was made partly with ticket sales and revenue in mind, UConn didn’t get placed in the region because of those factors alone. Sending the Huskies to Bridgeport also fit with the s-curve. NC State — the 1-seed in Bridgeport — is the third overall seed, so it should be paired with the second-best 2-seed according to the s-curve — which is UConn. The math checks out.

“Once we won the Big East tournament, obviously we knew that we had improved our chances and that we had made ourselves much more attractive to the committee for a better seed than maybe a month ago,” Auriemma said.

While the Huskies ultimately got the most favorable region in terms of geography, Auriemma believes most of that goes out the window once the games begin.

“Where we were going to go doesn’t really matter,” he said. “You gotta play the teams you gotta play. You gotta go play where they tell you to go play. So everybody’s got a tough bracket. Everybody’s got tough matchups. Everybody’s got a tough road to go and nobody’s got an easy pass. As it should be, right?”

Bridgeport is further down the line, though. First, UConn will open with 15-seed Mercer on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST on ABC. The Bears won the Southern Conference regular season and tournament championships and will enter the NCAA Tournament with a 23-6 record.

Even though the two schools have never met, Auriemma is plenty familiar with the Huskies’ first round opponent.

“I know they’re always in that situation where they’re either an NCAA team or an NCAA bubble team,” he said of Mercer. “Susie Gardner has been here a long time and I remember her from her days at Georgia with Andy Landers. She does a phenomenal job of coaching. So this isn’t a team that just came out of nowhere and snuck into the NCAA Tournament. They’re one of the best teams in the country, year in and year out.”

Juhász excited for first NCAA Tournament appearance

During the first three years of Dorka Juhász’s collegiate career, her only experience with the NCAA Tournament was as a fan. While at Ohio State, the Buckeyes never made the field of 64 and weren’t particularly close any season, either.

Even though UConn was guaranteed to be in after earning an automatic bid as Big East Tournament champions, Juhász wasn’t sure what Selection Sunday would be like.

“I never really experienced the whole like sitting down watching waiting for our name to be called,” she said. “I felt nervous. I never really had that (experience) before.”

In the past, Juhász would take in as much of the NCAA Tournament as she could. With her season already over, she had plenty of time to watch every game and track every team’s progress throughout the month.

This season, it’s just the opposite. Instead of following the entirety of the tournament, Juhász is only looking ahead to UConn’s matchup with Mercer.

“Now, it’s more like our goal is to win the first game and just focus on every single game (afterward),” she said.

After waiting so long to finally get a chance to be a part of March Madness, Juhász is counting down the days until Saturday.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I can’t wait for that moment when we put our jerseys on and go running out and start our first game.”

Bueckers doesn’t need extra motivation to reach Final Four

If UConn can reach its 14th straight Final Four this month, Paige Bueckers will get a chance to play in her home state. Minneapolis is the host of this year’s Final Four — just 15 minutes away from Hopkins, Minnesota, where Bueckers went to high school.

But as much as she would enjoy the chance to play close to home, the sophomore doesn’t need any extra motivation to get to the Final Four.

“I’m trying to make it to the Final Four every year,” Bueckers said. “But it being in Minneapolis, it would obviously be pretty awesome just for it to be at home. But I think we’re just taking it one game at a time and the Final Four is a goal of ours every year.”

Geno not happy to see Princeton in UConn’s region

On Saturday, former UConn forward Carla Berube’s Princeton team won the Ivy League Tournament to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Afterward, Auriemma called her up to congratulate her and as they talked about where both teams could land in the field, they agreed on the same thing.

“I just said, ‘I hope you’re not in our region,’” Auriemma relayed, “and she said, ‘No disrespect Coach, but I hope I’m not either.’”

The Selection Committee didn’t get the memo. When the bracket was revealed, Princeton ended up as the 11-seed in the Bridgeport Regional, where UConn is the 2-seed. If the Tigers upset 6-seed Kentucky and then beat the winner of 3-seed Indiana and 14-seed Charlotte, they’d take on the Huskies in the Sweet Sixteen.

While that would be a tough path, Auriemma isn’t going to count Berube out. Before she took the Princeton job, Berube led Division III Tufts to four consecutive Final Fours between 2014-17. She knows how to win in the postseason.

“Over the years, no one’s had more tournament success than Carla has from our world here in Storrs,” Auriemma said.

Regardless of where Princeton ended up in the field, he was mostly happy to see the Tigers get a deserving seed based on their resume instead of simply being judged by the conference they play in.

“For an Ivy League team to be an 11-seed, that’s a lot of respect for Carla’s team,” Auriemma said. “It shows hows you the kind of schedule they play and what people think of her, her team and Princeton basketball.

“I’m always rooting for our former players to do well.”