STORRS, Conn. - UConn and UCF will renew what has been a physical rivalry when the teams square off Monday night.
The No. 2 seed Huskies, who routed Mercer in the opening round, are 13-0 against the No. 7 seed Knights, dating back to their days together in the American Athletic Conference, which UConn left in 2020 to rejoin the Big East.
And while the Huskies were never beaten by a conference opponent in seven years in the AAC, UCF came close, falling by just seven points at home in January, 2020.
Their last meeting, a month later in Storrs, saw UConn win a chippy affair by 13. UCF's Masseny Kaba earned an intentional foul after delivering a shot to the nose of Husky center Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Diamond Battles received another while trying to prevent a UConn layup.
“It's always a physical game no matter who we’re playing because that’s just our intensity,” Kaba said Sunday. “I mean, we can’t well really talk about what’s going to happen. I’m not sure if there will be technicals or anything called, I'm not the refs, but it's always going to be physical."
The Huskies will be trying for their 28th straight second-round win. UCF, on the other hand, won its first ever NCAA Tournament game on Saturday, when the Knights (26-3) beat Florida for the first time in the history of that in-state rivalry.
UCF also won its first AAC title this season and coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is hoping for another first on Monday night.
“Now we've got a lot of experience,” she said.
UCF, which has won 14 straight games, came into the tournament leading the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 47.5 points a game.
“Their defensive philosophy is to be very, very disruptive,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They work really, really hard to get you out of your stuff, out of your rhythm. You’ve got to do a really good job of taking care of the ball, being assertive with the ball, and I think you’ve got to be the more aggressive team when you play against them.”
But UConn also is among the nation's best defensive teams, giving up just 41.6 points per game over its last 10. The Huskies outscored Mercer 20-0 during the third quarter on Saturday, becoming just the third team to hold an opponent scoreless during a period since the women went to quarters in 2016.
TURNING THE PAIGE
UConn's Paige Bueckers is looking more like her old self after returning from the left knee injury that kept her sidelined for well over two months.
In her sixth game back Saturday, she started, played 24 minutes and scored 12 points, with five assists and four rebounds.
“I’m not really looking to force shots,” she said. “I’m just looking to shoot when I’m open and get everybody else involved.”
Auriemma said he will continue to play it by ear when it comes to deciding how much Bueckers should play during the tournament.
“It could be 30 or 20 (minutes) on Monday,“ he said. ”It could be 30 on Monday. I think a lot depends on what the game looks like and what she looks like.”
IN STORRS SALES
At UConn, she was All-American player Nykesha Sales, but to her players at UCF, she's assistant coach “Cool Keesh.”
The 45-year-old Sales, who scored 2,178 points as a Husky, has been an assistant at UCF for all of Abrahamson-Henderson's six seasons.
And while her current players were not born when she was setting records as a player, they say she's earned their respect by going up and down the court every day in practice while running the scout team.
“When she’s playing and the ball is in her hand, she’s no joke,” Kaba said. We have to practice against her every day so we understand what type of player she was."
“I feel like that’s where we’re competitive, because of her, because of all of our coaches,” guard Tay Sanders said. “But Keesh is competitive; Keesh's not playing.”
Sales still calls and texts her former college coach frequently and took her UCF colleagues out to eat at Auriemma's restaurant on Saturday night. She said a lot of what she does as a coach can be traced back to what she learned at UConn.
“As far as drills, as far as the intensity in practice, as far as how you carry yourself off the court,” she said. “It's just a little bit of everything.”
The Huskies and Knights tip off Monday night at 9 p.m.