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Dolson: Top-ranked Huskies playing with a chip on their shoulders

Updated 11:26 pm, Saturday, March 22, 2014
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STORRS -- It sounds a little absurd, but UConn senior All-American Stefanie Dolson left no doubt: The chip is most definitely there.

"You have to play with a chip on your shoulder and that's what we do," Dolson said. "Bria (Hartley) and I, especially, know that every team wants to beat us and every team wants to see UConn lose. So we go out there and prove to them why we're the No. 1 team in the country."

Coach Geno Auriemma did his best to downplay the notion that the UConn women's team enters the NCAA tournament with a chip on its shoulder despite being the favorite to repeat as national champion. The top-ranked and undefeated Huskies have rolled through their first 34 games this season, winning by a nation's-best average of 35.7 points. They have defeated 12 ranked opponents by an average of 22.6 points. They have either established All-Americans or soon-to-be All-Americans at every position in a starting lineup that is the best in the country.

Still, UConn collectively believes that it has more to prove over the next two-plus weeks. Its quest for an NCAA-record ninth national championship begins tonight against 16th-seeded Prairie View A&M in the first round of the Lincoln Regional at Gampel Pavilion (8 p.m., ESPN).

The Huskies, who are riding a 40-game winning streak, enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten for the sixth time in team history (1994-95, 1996-97, 2001-02, 2008-09, 2009-10). They won the national championship in four of those seasons: 1995, 2002, 2009 and 2010.

With a win over Prairie View (14-17), UConn would meet eighth-seeded Georgia or ninth-seeded St. Joseph's in the second round Tuesday for a trip to the Sweet 16. The Huskies have won their last 20 first-round games by an average of 45.6 points since a 74-71 loss to Louisville at Gampel Pavilion in 1993.

"I think we go in confident, but at the same time we know we have a target on our back," said sophomore Breanna Stewart, the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player. "I don't think there is one team in the country that doesn't want to knock us off. That is why we have to go into each game as focused as we can. Every team is going to give us their best shot."

Aside from making history by completing a national championship run, the Huskies would secure the fifth undefeated season in team history and join Baylor (2011-12) as the only teams to win 40 games in a season.

Dolson, for one, said that she believes UConn is the best team in the country. With the exception of fellow unbeaten Notre Dame (33-0) and North Carolina-Asheville coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick, who has voted the Irish No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches poll since Feb. 24, few would differ with Dolson's opinion.

This level of confidence is just fine with Auriemma, too.

"I want Stefanie to think that we're the best team in the country," Auriemma said. "Right now it's just all talk. But starting (tonight), we're going to have an opportunity to prove it. I think every team needs that. We've always had the feeling at Connecticut that when we start the NCAA tournament, we're the best team in the country until somebody beats us."

While the Huskies are extremely confident in their ability, they do not perceive themselves to be unbeatable. All they have to do is recall what happened to Baylor last season. The Lady Bears and Brittney Griner were expected to repeat as national champions before Louisville made 16 3-pointers and eliminated them in the regional semifinals.

"I think that's one example," junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. "But, then again, you watch the men's tournament every year and there's plenty of examples of who should win and people who lose games when they're supposed to be the favorites. So I think that our coaches do a good job of preparing us all season for the intensity that we need to have going into every single game."

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