DAYTON, Ohio—— There has been a purpose for all the hard work the UConn women have invested this season. It's all about the prize, the goal and the quest. The Huskies always want to chase it. And tonight, the carrot on the string will be dangled at the University of Dayton Arena.
"We are in the position we want to be in," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "When we got back from the Final Four last year, it was still every kid's goal to be this close again to going back. The other games we've played were meant to lead us to Tuesday night.
"I told the team after we beat Iowa State [Sunday] that whatever it is we're doing, whatever else it is we are thinking, whatever the approach has been, we're going to stay with it and see where it takes us."
Tonight, an undefeated (36-0) team that hasn't lost in nearly two seasons will play as if their lives depended on it.
One bad step against Florida State (29-5) in the Dayton Regional finals will keep UConn out of its third consecutive Final Four, the 11th in program history.
And that's something it cares about much more than the 75-game winning streak that would die along with it.
Its opponent is a challenging and familiar one.
The Seminoles set a program record for victories this season. And they have played the Huskies tough in regular season games the last two seasons; losing by 12 in Cancun, Mexico on Dec. 21, 2008, then by 19 in Tallahassee, Fla., on Dec. 28, 2009.
"It is a little different because players graduate and the dynamics are a little different each year," Maya Moore said. "But you know you are going to play a tough team at this time of year and one with a lot of weapons that we'll need to prepare for. They pushed us hard last time and we're aware this will be a battle."
With its talented senior center, 6-foot-5 Jacinta Monroe, and a versatile and deep perimeter, the Seminoles seemingly match up well against UConn and are not afraid to run with them.
"They are a very athletic team, very quick and physical," Kalana Greene said. "When we played them right after Christmas break it was hard. I just remember needing to be very aggressive and going 100 miles-an-hour."
Auriemma, who worries more before games than you might suspect, understands what's in front of him.
"You know they are incredibly gifted. They are one of the few teams left in our bracket that can beat in you in many ways," Auriemma said. "They are big enough in the half court to keep your hands full. They are quick enough to play full court and extend your defense."
And apparently, they are upset about being categorized as big underdogs.
"I don't really think about it." Seminoles coach Sue Semrau said. "We just prepare, regardless of whether we are the favorite."
Monroe, a likely first-round pick in next week's WNBA draft, seemed annoyed Monday by a question referring to the Seminoles as a "substantial" underdog.
"That's a good thing for us," Monroe said. "I don't know if are the "substantial" underdog. We're seeded just two sports below them. But if that's the case, it's a great feeling for us, makes us feel like we're stepping up to take a challenge to shock the world, the media or anyone who doubts we can play or do this."
But it's going to take more than emotion to knock out the Huskies. They've won their first three games by an NCAA-record 148 points, holding each opponent under 40 points. Meanwhile, Florida State has had to work hard to beat St. John's and Mississippi State in the last two rounds.
They may be playing their best basketball at the most important time with Moore, Tina Charles and freshman Kelly Faris, who has made her last seven three-pointers, leading the way.
"It's hard not to know what to expect from them. They are all over the highlights," Monroe said. "We kind of have an idea how athletic and fast they are. We're just going to give it another shot and get after them."