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St. Joe's relishes challenge of playing No. 1 UConn

Published 12:01 am, Tuesday, March 25, 2014
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STORRS -- Saint Joseph's arrived at Gampel Pavilion last season simply happy to be competing in the NCAA women's basketball tournament. Winning the Atlantic 10 championship for the first time under long-time coach Cindy Griffin was a significant accomplishment. From there, anything else seemed to be a bonus.

The Hawks' attitude changed quickly, though, when they endured a 60-54 loss to Vanderbilt in the first round. Losing did not sit well with them. And they vowed that given another opportunity this season the results would be different. So far they have.

Led by senior guard Erin Shields, ninth-seeded Saint Joseph's defeated eighth-seeded Georgia in the first round Sunday at Gampel Pavilion. It was the program's first NCAA tournament win since a victory over Texas in the first round in 2000.

"I think being here last year getting a loss, we know how that feels now," Shields said. "I think that was the difference this year. We weren't just happy to be here. We wanted to come in and show that we were meant to be here. It wasn't a fluke that we got in or anything like that. We wanted to represent St. Joe's and we did that (Sunday).''

The Hawks (23-9) will now try to accomplish something that no other team in the history of the program has done in 12 previous NCAA tournament appearances. They are looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time. To do so, they most take down top-ranked No. 1 UConn tonight in the second round (7; ESPNU).

Saint Joseph's is 0-6 all-time in second-round games.

"As an athlete you want to play at the highest level, and you want to play against the best,'' Hawks' junior Natasha Cloud said. "And UConn is the best. They're the No. 1 team in the nation. We're a good team. And we've had some peaks and we've had some downs this year, but just stick with our game and do what we do best and everything else will fall into place.''

The Hawks hardly appear to be intimidated by the task of facing the Huskies (35-0) on their home floor. Griffin, who once took a recruiting visit to UConn and is in her 13th season with the Hawks, said Sunday's win over Georgia was a stepping stone for the program. A win over the Huskies would represent the biggest step that the team has ever taken.

"I think it's no secret that UConn is the best team in the country, but it's an opportunity,'' Griffin said. "They're competitors and if we're going to play in this tournament why not play the best and why not challenge yourself against the best. We're always the underdog and we like that role and we certainly have been successful with that role. So we're very excited about it.''

UConn coach Geno Auriemma can relate to the task at hand for Saint Joseph's. It took the Huskies three attempts to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time.

They lost to LaSalle in 1989. They lost to Clemson in 1990. Both games were played at Gampel Pavilion. They finally advanced with an 81-80 win over Toledo at Gampel Pavilion March 16, 1991.

Reaching the Sweet 16 is now the norm at UConn. A win tonight would mark its 21st straight trip to the regional semifinals.

"I kind of know what they're trying to do, but what they're trying to do is even harder than what we did because at least we were home at that time,'' Auriemma said. "So it's an unbelievable situation for them to be in. It's a fine line between a phenomenal opportunity for their kids and at the same time trying to win a game to stay alive in the tournament. Hey, I would love nothing better for them to win. But not (tonight).''

relliott@ctpost.com; @elliottctpost; blog.ctnews.com/elliott/