By JOHN ALTAVILLA, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
11:24 AM EDT, March 29, 2014
LINCOLN, Neb. — It is not UConn's style to be intimidated, even by a known intimidator, certainly at this point of the season when push ordinarily comes to shove.
The Huskies understand that BYU, their opponent in Saturday's Lincoln semifinal (4:30 p.m., ESPN) at Pinnacle Bank Arena, has a 6-foot-7 shot-blocker, senior Jennifer Hamson, who became the West Coast Conference's defender and player of the year by swatting away 141 shots.
UConn has had many big players. The Huskies have three now who have helped combine for a program-record 293 blocks. They know how much havoc they can cause.
Although Hamson is a large obstacle, the biggest in size the Huskies have faced this season, UConn is not about to let her block its view of an Elite Eight game Monday.
"You just have to make sure you are the ones who hit [the opponent] first," said Breanna Stewart, who leads UConn with 101 blocked shots. "You have to make a shot-blocker uncomfortable, take them out of their position. That goes for me, too. If I'm trying to block someone's shot, and I feel myself begin moved away, you can't block it. My arms aren't that long."
And Auriemma, perhaps one of the best ever at taking the other team's best player out, isn't about to cower.
"You have to play to your strengths and not allow a defense to take away what you are good at," Auriemma said. "If you are good at driving the ball to the basket, you drive the ball to the basket. If you can score in the low post, you continue to do that.
"The object at all times is to get people to come out of their comfort zone. Whatever team is the most comfortable is usually successful.
"If you spent too much time trying to figure out how to score against a 6-7 shot-blocker, the rest of your game goes to pot. We're not going to change our game plan much because the other team has a shot-blocker."
Junior Kiah Stokes, who has 85 blocks despite averaging only 18.8 minutes, said there are keys to getting a shot-blocker off her game.
"You need to try and shoot around me," Stokes said. "You use some shot fakes and try to pick up some fouls. There isn't much way to shoot over someone who is 6-7."
Still, No. 1 UConn will play a team that has already defied the odds by defying the odds.
"I just have to get my team to go out there and believe they can play them," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "But you have to make baskets. If you won't it will be a long night."
To help, the Cougars have heard from former North Carolina State player Thurl Bailey, who played on Jim Valvano's underdog team that beat Houston for the NCAA title. He's the uncle of junior forward Morgan Bailey.
The message was simple.
"You focus on the moment," sophomore guard Lexi Eaton said. "It only takes one day and one game."
Hamson has seen it all from opponents dedicated to dousing her impact.
"I love shot-blocking," Hamson said. "It's my favorite thing to do. Teams like to try and push me out of the way. Others teams may double-team me. I'm excited to see what [UConn] is going to do."
BYU's 28 wins are the most in program history. But this is just the second time it has been to a regional. And the Cougars are just the third No. 12 seed that has made it this far in the history of the women's tournament, where Dayton and Florida Gulf Coast simply do not exist.
One of those 12th seeds was San Francisco, which came out of the Mideast bracket in 1996 to play the Huskies in Rosemont, Ill. UConn won, 72-44.
Hamson leads BYU in scoring (18.1), rebounding (11.5) and blocked shots (141). Playing against Hamson will be like looking at its season in a mirror. UConn's defense, which leads the nation in fewest points allowed (47.1) and shooting percentage (30.4), is on track to set the NCAA record for blocks (now 310) in a season, set by Baylor and Brittney Griner in 2011-12.
Auriemma offered a joke Thursday when asked what it would take to beat his team this weekend.
"I would try to get their coach to act like a dummy and get thrown out of the game," Auriemma said.
But then he added that no team is as infallible as it might appear. If the Huskies win, they will play the winner of No. 7 DePaul-No. 3 Texas A&M in Monday's Elite Eight game at 9:30 p.m.
"It is an interesting bracket," Auriemma said. "It's not what everyone expected it would look like. But that's a good thing.
"There are weaknesses that every team has. There are things that each team does that are really good and others you can take advantage of. We are no different in that respect. The key to every game is to take advantage of the weaknesses and sustain it for 40 minutes.
"Our team, our staff, knows what our weaknesses are. Our job is to make sure the other teams don't know what they are.
Correction: BYU is in the West Coast Conference. The conference was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
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