Mighty UConn next for Penn State
HARTFORD, Conn. — Penn State will find out what it’s made of tonight.
The top-seeded Lady Lions (28-5) face defending champion and second seed Connecticut (28-4) at 7 p.m. on ESPN in the Elite 8 of the East Region on the Huskies’ home floor, the Hartford Civic Center. The winner advances to the Final Four on April 6-8 in New Orleans.
“This is the biggest game of my career,” Penn State senior guard Kelly Mazzante said. “We have to play UConn for a chance to go to the Final Four. This is as good as it gets.”
If Mazzante and the Lady Lions are to reach the Final Four, they need to play a near-perfect Elite 8 game against Connecticut, which is one of the most prestigious women’s basketball teams in the country.
“Connecticut is good because they play as one, defensively,” Penn State junior guard Tanisha Wright said. “They rotate well and help each other out. We just need to run our sets because eventually they will slip up.”
Connecticut (28-4), which has won four national championships, is trying to reach a record-setting fifth Final Four. The Huskies are 7-3 all-time in Elite 8 games.
Penn State (28-5) is in the Elite 8 for the third time in school history.
The Lady Lions made it to their only Final Four in 2000, losing to Connecticut.
“You have to be concerned about the great tradition that they have and the great experience that they have,” said Penn State coach Rene Portland, whose team defeated Notre Dame, 55-49, in the Sweet 16. “They have set the standard for women’s basketball that people strive to be like.”
Connecticut is 3-4 all-time against Penn State and has won the past three meetings.
In that game, guard Mazzante and forward Jess Brungo were sophomores and guards Jess Strom and Tanisha Wright were freshmen.
“The tables are turned,” said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, whose team beat UC Santa Barbara, 63-55, in the Sweet 16. “They have experience now, plus four 1,000-point scorers. They played tough in the first half, but could not handle what we threw at them in the second half.”
Wright said she and her teammates will be ready this time. They spent the past two years working to get stronger to be able to compete at the level of a Connecticut.
“Connecticut deserves everything they have gotten, because they have won big games,” Wright said.
The Lady Lions have shown this season they can win big games at home and on the road with one of the toughest schedules in the country.
Connecticut realizes that, too.
“At this point, every team is good,” sophomore forward Barbara Turner said. “We just look forward to playing.”
Connecticut star Diana Taurasi said her team best stay poised for 40 minutes because of Penn State’s extensive offensive weapons.
Connecticut junior forward Ashley Battle said she is looking forward to playing against Penn State which has three players she knows from Western Pennsylvania — Wright of West Mifflin, Strom of Steel Valley and North Allegheny’s Brungo.
“It is always fun to play against your friends,” said Battle, a North Side native and graduate of the Linsly School in W. Va. “I think it will be a scrappy game. They have a really good team.”
Auriemma said he won’t just be able to center on leading-scorer Mazzante because Strom, Wright and Brungo can score.
But he also has someone who can put the ball in the basket.
“We have Diana,” he said. “The bottom line is, every other coach in this tournament wishes it had Diana, especially with the score tied in the closing minutes.”
The Penn State players respect Taurasi’s game. They said she is the type of player who plays hard every game and has the ability to take over a game.
Penn State can’t allow Taurasi and Connecticut to force it into a half-court game. Penn State plays best when it is able to run the floor.
“We realize this could be our last game if we don’t come and play our game,” Wright said. “We have to play our game and stay focused on the things we need to do to keep playing.”
Barbara Turner 6-0 So. F
Ann Strother 6-2 So. F
Jessica Moore 6-3 Jr. C
Diana Taurasi 6-0 Sr. G
Maria Conlon 5-7 Sr. G
Penn State (28-5)
Jessica Brungo 6-1 Sr. F
Reicina Russell 6-6 Fr. F
Kelly Mazzante 6-0 Sr. G
Jess Strom 5-7 Jr. G
Tanisha Wright 5-11 Jr. G