Vermont women's basketball players grew up watching UConn. Now Catamounts face Huskies in NCAA Tourney

STORRS — The Vermont women’s basketball players grew up watching UConn women’s basketball.

They tuned in to watch the Huskies' biggest moments, their four-straight national championship runs, and all the iconic players in between.

Senior guard Emma Utterback idolized Maya Moore, while senior forward Delany Richason looks up to Katie Lou Samuelson as the two both wear No. 33.

Even head coach Alisa Kresge grew up watching Geno Auriemma, including playing against the Huskies as a college junior at Marist.

The No. 15 seeded Catamounts come into Saturday’s NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with the No. 2 Huskies as the underdogs, yet they’re ready to showcase their talent in front of a packed Gampel Pavilion.

"UConn is a very, very successful program and it's very easy to kind of get caught up on the name," Utterback said. "But we never want to go into a game not thinking that we can pull a win out. I think that's the biggest thing, step on that floor and own it and own the experience, and don't let the moment get too big. Anyone can win a basketball game no matter how good a team is."

Vermont started the season 1-4, including an 86-49 loss at Indiana to open the season.

Despite the loss, the Catamounts learned quickly how to stay poised in front of a large crowd and hostile environment. Even Utterback, who’s from Indiana, rose up to the occasion and led the team with 19 points and four assists with four rebounds. The Hoosiers are a No. 1 seed in the Greenville 2 Regional for the NCAA Tournament.

"We had two Indiana kids that idolized Indiana growing up, so I was really nervous how they were going to handle it. And those two, they played like they had something to prove, which is awesome," Kresge said. "I'm hoping that we take that same experience into this game because we've been there. ... So in some ways, I'm hoping it's not a culture shock because they have actually been through it."

Vermont lost back-to-back games to start the season but didn’t lose two straight in a row again until Dec. 29 and Jan. 1. The Catamounts began the new year as a whole new team, re-energized and re-focused following a 68-67 overtime win at Bryant on Jan. 4.

"I realized, OK, we're going to challenge this group, and they can go one of two ways; they can give up or they can find a way to fight, and they did," Kresge said. "And from there on out, the word had been grit and they just have run with it."

As of Friday, the Catamounts' last loss was on Jan. 1 to UMBC. Since then, they’ve won 17 straight heading into Saturday’s game. 

Auriemma says this year's Vermont team reminds him of the opponents UConn faces in the Big East.

"They know what they want to do and they do it really, really well," Auriemma said. "They play like a team that gets players that maybe were overlooked by bigger programs, and they play like they have something to prove. They are really well-coached. You know, what I have seen so far, I really, really like. They remind me of some of the teams in our league."

Vermont finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the America East conference and defeated No. 2 Albany 38-36 to secure its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2010.

The Catamounts’ lone win in the NCAA Tournament was against Wisconsin in the first round on March 21, 2010, winning 64-55. Vermont then lost in the second round that year to Notre Dame, 84-66.

Saturday will mark the program’s second meeting with UConn in the tournament.

The teams also faced off in the first round on March 22, 2009, with UConn winning 104-65. Tina Charles led with 32 points and 11 rebounds, while Moore finished with 13 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals.

UConn is 11-0 all-time against Vermont with the teams’ last meeting on Dec. 3, 2009 in Storrs as the Huskies won 84-42. Moore led with 20 points followed by Charles with 18.

Meanwhile, Saturday will be just the second time Kresge will go against Auriemma and his program.

The Huskies beat Marist on Nov. 12, 2005, with Kresge leading the Red Foxes as point guard.

"The positive was we were up three at halftime. So that was good, right? And then the second half came and it was 44-21 in the second half. So that was tough," she said Friday. "But it was a great experience. ... Playing UConn is only going to make you better. So playing them tomorrow is only going to make our program stronger and our players better, and that's what it's about, you got to play the best in order to be the best."

Kresge has continued to watch Auriemma’s coaching career from afar and has nothing but respect for the Hall of Fame coach.

"I grew up watching Geno. He's done so much for the game," Kresge said. "… So, I've really always been so impressed by him and what he's able to do. It's so hard. I know people take it for granted. But it's incredible what he's doing, and I think he's a huge part of the game.

"I'm not looking forward to the day that Geno's not on the sideline. I think it's incredible what he's done for our game and what he's done for USA basketball. He's really helped elevate this game. I'm a big fan of his."

The Catamounts allowed themselves a moment each to stand back and appreciate playing in Gampel Pavilion. They looked up at the banners and thought back to all the historic players that have played on the same hardwood.

But they know that come Saturday, they're playing to keep their season alive.

"We grew up watching UConn, so it's very cool to be here and this experience, but once we step on that floor, it's go-time and all of the nerves and that have to go away and we've got to stay focused," Utterback said.   @maggie_vanoni