TAMPA, Fla. - Geno Auriemma is coaching in his 16th Final Four and seeking his 10th national championship at Connecticut, so much of his success comes from getting his players to welcome the role of being a constant favorite.
"They come to Connecticut with that expectation in mind, and they embrace that role and survive and actually thrive . . . in that role of having to be the favorite, having to be on your game every night," Auriemma said Saturday in advance of Sunday night's game against Maryland in a national semifinal. "Because everybody's national championship is when they play you during the regular season."
UConn (36-1) has won 35 straight since an overtime loss to Stanford in November, and all 35 wins have been by at least 14 points. The Huskies are seeking their third straight national title, with a sustained dominance so high that their season is just now beginning to count as a success by the program's high standards.
"We know that everyone wants to beat us, and it comes with the territory," said junior forward Breanna Stewart, who leads the team with 17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. "We come to a program where we set the standard really high, and our goal is to get to the Final Four and to win championships. We know that we always have a target on our backs."
UConn has only two seniors, center Kiah Stokes, who set a team record with 145 blocked shots this season, and forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. As many titles as Auriemma has won, he is motivated for his freshmen, who haven't won one yet, and those seniors, who have a chance to leave the college game on a high note.
Maryland (34-2) didn't play UConn this season. The other two Final Four teams, Notre Dame and South Carolina, are 0-2 against the Huskies and a combined 69-2 against everyone else in the nation.
Terrapins coach Brenda Frese said she believes non-Huskies fans in the arena will pull for her team, just from a natural desire to see a changing of the guard at the top of women's basketball after two straight UConn titles.
"I mean, aren't we tired of it?" she said Saturday. "I think everybody's rooting for us. I think we're ready for some new stories. And our sport needs it, to be quite honest. At the same time, it's up to us as coaches and programs to be able to develop our teams and our programs to that point."
Auriemma, after all, has lost six times in the Final Four, including his last time in a Final Four in Tampa, when Stanford beat UConn in 2008. Frese has done well in getting the Terrapins back to the Final Four after losing five seniors from last year's team, including three-time All-American Alyssa Thomas.
Her team has its share of star power, including point guard Lexie Brown, the daughter of former Celtics star Dee Brown, and is ready to make the most of the holiday opportunity.
"It's Easter Sunday,'' Frese said. "So we're hoping to find a lot of baskets."