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UConn No. 1 in women's AP Top 25 again after Notre Dame win

Connecticut players celebrate on the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

The assignment made by Lisa Stone to her players Sunday was to watch basketball.

And as the St. Louis University women’s team watched Connecticut beat Notre Dame, the Billikens also were witnessing the Huskies’ rise to the top of the national rankings, where they have finished each of the last five regular seasons.

Although UConn has lost in the national semifinals the last two years, coach Geno Auriemma’s program remains the gold standard of women’s basketball, as was proved with an emphatic win over the previously top-ranked Irish.

The Billikens will get a first-hand look Tuesday night when the Huskies visit Chaifetz Arena for a 6 p.m. tip-off.

“Whatever they’re ranked, they’re still the same program,” SLU guard Kerri McMahan said. “You can see the way they play and dismantle their opponents, they play with a sense of discipline, structure and togetherness you don’t see every day.”

The game will mark the homecoming for UConn forward Napheesa Collier, but as usual the roster includes a variety of potential All-Americans and rising stars. It’s the kind of talent that has produced 11 national championships, 19 Final Four appearances and Auriemma’s career record of 1,034-136.

The last time Stone coached against a No. 1 team, it was during her days at Division III Wisconsin-Eau Claire against Washington University.

This time the gauge of success isn’t about the score but what the Billikens can learn from the experience.

“We are going to do everything in our power to play as hard as we can for as long as we can against the best team in the country,” she said. “We’re also going to witness a team that is the best of the best in championship behavior. When they walk in, there are no headphones, no social media, no messing around.”

SLU will counter UConn with a lineup that is young after losing six seniors from last season. McMahan and Jordyn Frantz are the lone seniors, and five freshmen have seen considerable playing time.

UConn has Collier, who was a first-team All-American as a sophomore and third team last season, and guard Katie Lou Samuelson, a two-time first-teamer. The Huskies won their games by an average of 36.1 points last season, 32.2 the year before and 39.7 the year before that. They have won 122 consecutive regular-season games.

With all of that in mind, what is the goal?

“I think it’s just not to flinch,” McMahan said. “We can go into the game and say we want to have this few turnovers or shoot this percentage. But we have to show we’re prepared mentally, physically and emotionally to play them and give them all we’ve got. If we do that, I don’t see how there can be a negative outcome.”

Stone is teaching her system to a lot of new players, led by freshman point guard Ciaja Harbison, who is SLU’s second-leading scorer.

After struggling to close out close games, the Billikens have shown improvement by winning their last three, including a victory at Virginia. Stone has gone a long way toward implementing her system, so there has never been any thought of altering the game plan to face UConn.

“If you do that, everything you’ve worked for goes out the door,” she said. “We have to get better no matter who we’re playing.”

Playing ranked opponents is uncommon for SLU. By chance, the Billikens will play No. 23 Mizzou at home Sunday.

The Billikens haven’t played a ranked opponent since losing 70-67 to No. 16 Xavier in February 2009. They have a 12-game losing streak against ranked teams, the last win being 73-71 in overtime over No. 20 DePaul in January 2003.

No one is suggesting the SLU players won’t be nervous. McMahan said she and Frantz need to help the freshmen remain calm. Stone said that’s her job, along with keeping her players focused on the game plan and not the opponent.

“I’ve got to get the team to not be intimidated,” she said. “You have to go out and play. If you go in scared, it’s over. If there’s anything I know about UConn, it’s that when they see you’re tired or scared, it’s like they smell blood.”