By Tracy Schultz
The top two teams in the country have been headed on a collision course that will end tonight. After pinning more than 100 points on their most recent opponents, Connecticut and North Carolina are moving at full steam. And it's clear both have the components it takes to reach the Final Four once again. Here are a few keys that could help each come out on top Monday.
- North Carolina is aggressive on the defensive end and knows how to put on the pressure. With an up-tempo style on both ends of the floor, the Tar Heels have the ability to force opponents into making hurried decisions and play a bit out of control at times. It's why they lead the nation in takeaways and force 24.8 turnovers a game. They harassed Virginia, a team that averages 16 turnovers, into 22 in last week's win.
- A team needs depth if it wants to keep pace with UNC for 40 minutes. Cetera DeGraffenreid is the only player logging more than 25 minutes a game. The Tar Heels got 48 points out of their bench in last week's win against Virginia. The emergence of Chay Shegog has bolstered that depth. The 6-5 freshman is averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds in ACC play. Shegog adds to an already formidable frontcourt that includes 6-3 Jessica Breland. Since moving into the starting lineup this season, Breland has become one of the Tar Heels' most consistent threats inside. She leads the team with 13.3 points a game.
- Breland is one of just four players scoring in double figures. That balance is a big reason the Tar Heels have one of the country's most productive offenses. With 86.9 points a game, they trail only Connecticut.
- Renee Montgomery isn't just one of the best point guards in the nation, but she may very well be the Player of the Year. It's unlikely an experienced veteran like Montgomery, who has started 126 games for UConn, will be rattled by the Tar Heels' pressure as others have been. Montgomery and the Huskies lead the country with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.59-to-1.
- Despite all the attention she draws, Maya Moore is one of the top scorers in the Big East. Moore can do it all for the Huskies. She leads the team in scoring (19.6 ppg), rebounding (9.1 rpg) and steals (31). She's coming off a 40-point performance against Syracuse. But when the double and triple teams come, Moore is also more than capable of getting the ball to her teammates. She's dishing out 3.9 assists a game. Only Montgomery (5.7) averages more.
- The Huskies will be playing their first game since learning that freshman guard Caroline Doty will be out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Of course, this isn't the first time UConn has had to deal with such a loss. Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene suffered similar fates last season. With confidence and the ability to hit from long range, the rookie had already become an integral part of the UConn offense. Doty's absence will make the Huskies' lineup a little bigger. Kaili McLaren, a 6-2 junior, will start in her place. This certainly won't be McLaren's first time in such a position. She started 11 games last season. Playing alongside Tina Charles, who is having the type of season UConn fans have longed for, McLaren could find opportunities for herself inside.
- The Huskies also have history on their side. The Tar Heels are just 2-24 against top-ranked teams. They've faced a No. 1 UConn team twice, and came up on the losing end both times.
Final thoughts: While it's sure to provide a great deal of entertainment tonight, the outcome of tonight's game isn't going to change much in the long run. Both teams will go on to win their conference titles. Both will end up as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. And both will return to the Final Four, an event that's become habit for these programs. It sure is nice to have a preview in January, though.