COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When was the last time Connecticut's women's basketball team was thought to be a clear underdog? Well ...
Considering the Huskies have won 10 NCAA titles overall, including the last three in a row, and have been to the Final Four for eight consecutive years, it's hard to think back to a time when they weren't expected to win.
And certainly, they are the firm favorite for Monday's showdown (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) with No. 2 South Carolina -- despite being the visiting team in a sold-out, Gamecock-crazy Colonial Life Arena.
"I don't know that UConn will be intimidated; they've been in these situations before," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "But I'm hoping maybe that gives us a little bit of an edge, being at home.
"To win as many games as we've won -- 45 in a row at home -- is directly impacted by our fans. They've come in this building and created a home-court advantage like no other. I put it up against any university."
But the Huskies actually love being the "bad guys" in front of a packed house.
"It's gonna be crazy, and that's what you want," UConn senior Breanna Stewart said. "I think that South Carolina has a chip on their shoulder from last year when they came [to Storrs, Connecticut], and falling short in the Final Four. And they want to redeem themselves in front of their home fans."
Last February at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies beat the Gamecocks 87-62. UConn has a history of dumping cold water on games that have red-hot hype. The Huskies take over, and kill the drama.
Could that happen Monday? Sure. We've seen it too much to say it couldn't. But if South Carolina can keep UConn from taking over early and running away -- easier said than done -- then we might have a game that meets the high hopes surrounding it. What will be five big X factors in this one?
1. How both teams start
This really can't be overstated. As mentioned, the Huskies have a history of squashing would-be challengers right out of the gate. It's often as if they're playing at a different speed than their opponents, who suddenly look up at the scoreboard and realize the game "feels" like it's over well before halftime.
The Huskies go for the jugular from the tip. The good thing for the Gamecocks is that they know this, having faced UConn last year. The bad thing is South Carolina has had a bit of a tendency to start slowly.
"They're probably gonna be the hardest team that we've played this year to defend because no one else has that combination of size and strength."UConn's Geno Auriemma on South Carolina's A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates
So what if the worst happens in the opening minutes? At least with the four quarters in use this year, there is built-in reset of sorts after 10 minutes. And the Gamecocks have to keep in mind that the Huskies actually aren't super-human. Notre Dame and Maryland both were able to find some vulnerabilities. The Irish and the Terps didn't win, though.
2. The Gamecocks' ability to score inside
South Carolina's A'ja Wilson (16.7 PPG, 9.2 RPG) and Alaina Coates (12.9 PPG, 10.0 RPG) are a load to try to contain in the paint. The 6-foot-4 Coates is shooting 69.1 percent from the field, while the 6-5 Wilson is shooting 53.7 percent.
"They're probably gonna be the hardest team that we've played this year to defend because no one else has that combination of size and strength," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They both pass the ball pretty well, they both score really well around the basket."
Auriemma also noted the graduation of Kiah Stokes, now with the New York Liberty, and how she impacted the Huskies' defense. There was never a one-on-one matchup last year in which Auriemma worried about Stokes not being able to hold her own. Thus, the Huskies could afford to put more pressure on the perimeter and make it difficult for their opponents to pass the ball into the paint. They didn't have to be concerned with help defense aiding Stokes; she typically didn't need it.
Auriemma said players such as 6-2 Morgan Tuck and 5-11 Gabby Williams will be giving up some size inside if they're trying to slow down Coates and Wilson. But here's the thing: You know that Auriemma will be challenging his team to play its best as a unit against the Gamecocks' biggest strength.
3. UConn's ability to play at a high standard regardless of foe
Weeks of beating up on unfortunate American Athletic Conference teams that they couldn't possibly lose to has not left the Huskies "soft." To the contrary, they are able to maintain a high level of play even when it's not needed to win. That's one of the most defining characteristics of Auriemma's program.
The SEC has been very competitive, although the Gamecocks have gained separation on the rest of the league at 10-0. Still, they've been pushed, including by Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Kentucky.
"We've got to be able to not have empty possessions."Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley
On paper, it might seem that South Carolina's tougher conference would give the Gamecocks some edge in this matchup with UConn. But because their level of play always stays so high, the Huskies probably won't allow their conference schedule to be any disadvantage.
4. The "everybody is dangerous" factor for UConn
Stewart is the three-time All-American who can do just about anything. Staley said that Wilson asked her the other day, "How am I supposed to play her?" How, indeed? Stewart is averaging 19.4 PPG and 8.2 PRG.
There's not a really good answer for this question, but the best one is, "Try to make things hard for her."
However, even if you do that, the rest of the Huskies are going to cause you trouble, too. UConn generally has five legitimate offensive weapons on the court. The Huskies share the ball extremely well (484 assists this season), they run their sets with precision, they all have confidence as scorers. This is how UConn can wear out even the most active and aggressive defenses.
Stewart, Tuck, Williams, Moriah Jefferson, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier ... it's like the mythical Hydra.
5. South Carolina's perimeter shooting
The camera in the huddle during the Gamecocks' 78-68 victory over Kentucky last Thursday showed Staley at one point saying, "Pound it, pound it, pound it, pound it!" to her players about the necessity of feeding Wilson/Coates. We've established how important they are. But won't the Gamecocks need some outside offense to have a chance to win? Of course.
The Gamecocks lost All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell early in the Kentucky game when she fell hard on her back, but she's been practicing and is expected to play Monday. However, another senior guard, Asia Dozier, remains out with a hand injury.
So South Carolina will have Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, Tina Roy and Bianca Cuevas to rely on at guard. The Gamecocks are not a big threat from 3-point range; they have 116 treys this season, compared to UConn's 170 in the same amount of games (22).
So, unlike a team such as Notre Dame, the Gamecocks aren't likely to disrupt UConn's defense with long-range shooting. However, if South Carolina can get Roy (45 3-pointers) or Mitchell (36) some decent looks, and the guards as a unit are able to penetrate effectively to some degree, then that's going to help the Gamecocks at least have a chance to keep up offensively.
"We've got to be able to not have empty possessions," Staley said. Katie Barnes of espnW contributed to this story.