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BYU women's basketball: Cougars respect UConn, but excited for chance to play No. 1 team in country

Published: Wednesday, March 26 2014 9:35 p.m. MDT

BYU's Morgan Bailey drives to the hoop during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) BYU's Morgan Bailey drives to the hoop during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

PROVO — When Jeff Judkins started coaching the BYU women’s basketball team 13 years ago, he said he decided that he’d “better learn from the best.”

So Judkins looked to UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

“I’m a big fan of his,” Judkins said. “I think he does a great job.”

The No. 12 seed Cougars meet Auriemma's No. 1-seeded and No. 1-ranked Huskies Saturday (2:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) in the Lincoln, Neb., regional, with the winner advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

Since the Italian-born Auriemma lived most of his life on the East Coast, he was familiar with Judkins, who played for the Boston Celtics in the late 1970s.

“He’s a big Celtics fan,” Judkins said. “He knew me a little bit, and knew I played for the Celtics. So that helped. I have a lot of respect for him. He does a great job. He coaches the way that I try to coach. His teams are very physical. His teams play together. He’s hard on them, but he’s fair. That’s the kind of coach that I wanted to be. … He’s a great coach. He doesn’t fold under pressure. He’s been in every big game.”

BYU's Morgan Bailey drives to the hoop during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) BYU's Morgan Bailey drives to the hoop during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Judkins and Auriemma have established a relationship over the years, which produced a home-and-home series between the two programs. BYU visited UConn in 2007, and the Huskies invaded the Marriott Center one year later. UConn won both games handily.

The Huskies have built a 36-0 record this season and are a perennial national powerhouse with eight national championships on their resume. UConn tends to crush almost every team it faces. This season, the Huskies defeated then No. 3 Stanford by 19 points and then No. 3 Duke by 22 points. They’ve won games by as many as 61, 51 and 49 points.

After BYU upset Nebraska Monday night, Judkins jokingly said he would be praying for St. Joseph’s to beat UConn. The Huskies pulverized St. Joseph’s by 39 points Tuesday, 91-52.

“They have inside-outside presence. They execute their offense perfectly,” Judkins said of UConn. “Defensively, they’re just physical and tough. They don’t beat themselves defensively. They make you hit shots and make plays. The biggest thing is, they believe they’re the best. They believe no one can beat them. You saw (Auriemma's) comment, ‘If we play our game, nobody in the country can beat us.’ And he believes that with all of his teams and they all believe that.”

BYU's Jennifer Hamsom, center, smiles during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) BYU's Jennifer Hamsom, center, smiles during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Judkins sees some of those qualities in his players.

“My team has kind of got that this year. They believe if they play their game, and do the things they’re supposed to, they can beat anybody,” Judkins said. “That’s where we want to get our program. … Our game’s very similar to UConn. Very similar. That’s how I built this team and that’s what I want to do.”

BYU’s players are looking forward to the monumental challenge UConn presents.

“I’m all about that. That’s why I’m so excited for this,” said guard Lexi Eaton. “It’s a great measurement against the best and see how you measure up. You don’t get a lot of opportunities like that.”

Guard Kim Beeston said playing a team like UConn is “so surreal. I think watching film is when it starts to sink in a little bit. We’ve worked so, so hard to get here. We couldn’t be more happy.”

BYU Cougars practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) BYU Cougars practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. The Cougars will meet top seed UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Eaton said a shot at the No. 1 team is a huge motivating factor for the Cougars.

“It gives me extra fire just knowing they’re at the top of the country right now," she said. "They’re undefeated. We want to see how we can measure up against them. We’ve already beaten two top 20 teams (in the tournament). I honestly believe when we’re playing like we have been, we can compete against anybody.”

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