LINCOLN, Neb. — While considering his team’s monumental Sweet 16 showdown against national powerhouse, and the top seed in the NCAA tournament, UConn, BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins dipped into his bottomless barrel of analogies once again.
No, he didn’t mention obvious ones, like David vs. Goliath, or Rocky vs. Apollo Creed. Instead, as the Cougars prepare to meet the Huskies Saturday (2:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at Pinnacle Bank Arena, he compared this matchup to the insurmountable odds he once faced as an NBA player.
“The first time I played Dr. J (Julius Erving), I was nervous,” Judkins said. “As soon as he dunked on me one time, that was it."
Judkins has told his players "to come out and play our kind of game" against UConn. "We’ve played some really good teams in the NCAA tournament. That will help us. But we’ve got to play our game. We can’t be in awe. We’ve got to come out and execute and punch them back. Not let them punch us.”
For the Cougars to knock out heavily favored UConn, they probably will need to play a perfect game.
Speaking of perfect, if the Huskies look invincible, it’s only because nobody’s been able to beat them for a while. UConn is 36-0 this season and has won every game by double digits. Eight times, the Huskies have won by more than 50 points.
UConn is a living, breathing dynasty, with six consecutive trips to the Final Four and seven national titles since 2000, including one a year ago. The Huskies are riding a 42-game winning streak.
“It's very intimidating,” Judkins said. “They've been here every year, so they're not nervous or excited probably as much as we are.”
And, in the other corner, there’s unheralded, No. 12-seeded BYU. The party-crashing Cougars (28-6) aren’t just fortunate to be in the Sweet 16. They’re fortunate to be in the tournament at all. BYU was one of the last four at-large teams to receive a bid.
“Nobody thought we'd be here,” Judkins said, “or we wouldn't have been rated 12th.”
“BYU deserves to be here,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “If they didn't deserve to be here, they would not be here."
Few are giving the Cougars any chance of advancing to the Elite Eight. Though improbable, a win Saturday would mark the biggest win in the history of women’s basketball at BYU.
Guard Lexi Eaton said she and her teammates are relishing, and embracing, the underdog role.
“You might as well,” she said. “UConn has everything to lose. We have everything to gain. They’re the ones that are undefeated. We’re coming in hot, off two great wins. We’re really hitting our stride right now.”
What does Auriemma think of the Cougars becoming just the third No. 12 seed in women’s tournament history to reach the Sweet 16?
"Well, just the fact that it has happened so few of times shows how difficult it is. I don't think it is as difficult as it used to be and I don't think it is going to be more difficult, I think it will be less difficult for a 12 seed to get to the regionals,” Auriemma said. “If you ask anyone on our team what seed BYU is, they won't know. They just know BYU beat Nebraska and you have to play them. At this time of the year, you don't get caught up in numbers. Not this year, but the committee has been known to make a mistake here or there on the seeding. So it doesn't necessarily mean what the number is who you really are as a team."
So what can BYU do to stage a shocking upset?
“Get them out of rhythm,” Judkins said. “We’re going to change things up — we’re going to man, zone, press. More importantly, we’ve got to play our defensive principles and take care of the ball. We cannot turn the ball over. The times we’ve played them, we had 20-something turnovers. We can’t do that. We have to take care of the ball.”
UConn is known for jumping on opponents from the outset. The Cougars know that the first minutes of the game are critical.
“It’s important to set the tone,” said Eaton. “We have to come ready to play from the start.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars are confident.
“I think we match up really well with them,” Eaton said. “We have good bigs, they have good bigs. They can shoot, we can shoot. We have a great opportunity. We’re going to come into this game with an aggressive mindset. We have nothing to lose.”
“It’s nice to be the underdog sometimes, to go out, give it your all, and not have much to worry about,” Judkins said. “UConn’s been there, we haven’t. That’s to their advantage. Hopefully, we’ll go out and play our kind of basketball. That’s what I want them to do.”