David Cloninger

Cloninger: Now we can talk about it

Can UConn handle a sold-out CLA?
Can UConn handle a sold-out CLA? tglantz@thestate.com

Now it’s here.

The past few weeks, the whispers started to be heard, and then maybe one question in a post-game or practice presser was asked. Over the past seven days, the promos have started to hit e-mail and TV, play-by-play announcers calling other SEC games have mentioned it and even Dawn Staley – because she was asked, not that she volunteered – commented on it.

Thursday’s win over Kentucky ended the informalities. It’s here.

The Game is on Monday.

It’s one that’s been circled since the deal was reached over two years ago. Staley knew that she had an extremely talented team that would have a great chance to win the national championship. She knew that while scheduling aggressively in the non-conference and having to slog through the 16-game SEC gauntlet would prove her team’s championship mettle, there was one opponent who, if the Gamecocks could beat them, would really show how ready it was to go all the way.

Connecticut.

Undefeated, which isn’t unusual. Coming off a championship season, as usual. Number one in the country, a spot others only keep warm until the Huskies’ inevitable return, as the Gamecocks did for 12 weeks last year.

UConn drilled USC on its home court last year, doing what it usually does – opponents might hang for around 10 minutes, but the combined talents of enough McDonald’s All-Americans to start a franchise will overcome. Many of the same faces, notably two-time National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, are back.

The networks will hype it every way they can. No. 1 vs. No. 2. Each undefeated. Two teams destined to meet again in Indianapolis with the trophy on the line. Geno Auriemma, who has won 10 national championships and will coach the Olympic team this summer, against Staley, one of his Olympic assistants who just may succeed him at Team USA.

The Gamecocks’ greatest advantage – Colonial Life Arena – will also come into play. Yes, UConn routinely plays in front of sold-out crowds since many road games feature stands filled with fans who want to see just how good they are. But have the Huskies ever seen something like they’ll see on Monday – approximately 17,800 (building capacity: 18,000) screaming Staley-ites willing their team, letting UConn know that nobody comes into CLA and leaves with a win?

Nothing but a spot in the polls gets decided on Monday. The loser will still have a chance to win something much greater than a regular-season game in April.

But for the next four days, a national spotlight will shine on the program that has defined women’s college basketball the past 15 years, and one that hopes to take its place someday.

Get ready.

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