Texas' twin towers to test UConn

ALBANY -- Stats gurus warn against predictions based on the last game you watched, but that might be Texas' best hope against No. 1 UConn in the NCAA women's regional semifinal here Saturday (ESPN/WatchESPN, noon ET).

The Longhorns played a "Twin Towers" lineup for much of their 73-70 victory at Cal in the second round on Sunday, and 6-foot-7 junior forward Imani McGee-Stafford and 6-5 sophomore center Kelsey Lang together scored 34 points while converting a combined 13-of-19 shots from the field.

Meanwhile, the inside presence of Lang (two blocks, two steals) and McGee-Stafford (11 boards) frustrated Cal's talented tandem of Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray, holding the latter to just seven points.

"We complement each other really well," McGee-Stafford said ahead of Friday's workout at the Times-Union Center. "I'm more of a banger, Kelsey's a lot of finesse. She shoots better, I rebound better, and we do what each other can't. It's fun playing with someone who can do exactly what you can't and has your back."

Texas' size might be the Longhorns' lone edge advantage over the 34-1 Huskies, the prohibitive favorite to win the region as well as their third straight NCAA title.

"The biggest team we've played is South Carolina, and they're way bigger than South Carolina," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They've really found themselves these last four weeks. They're playing as well as anybody right now."

But while coach Karen Aston's move to pair Lang and McGee-Stafford looks obvious after the Cal game, which landed the once-feared Texas program its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2004, the Longhorns' mentor had already tried going big -- and failed. Aston started Lang alongside McGee-Stafford in five regular-season games in January and February, and lost four of them.

The slump was part of a disastrous midseason 2-8 sinkhole for the Longhorns, who opened the season 13-0 but fell into disarray when star forward Nneka Enemkpali sustained a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 19 against Baylor.

That blow, part of a rash of injuries this season, meant it would take time for Texas to rediscover a rhythm. "At the beginning of the season I never expected us playing together, but we had injuries, and we really had no choice," Lang said. "It took a while for us to get used to playing with each other. ... And now we're comfortable, and I think the other people on the court are comfortable with us playing together as well."

To hang with the Huskies, McGee-Stafford and Lang will have to make UConn's interior players uncomfortable. That's something no team has accomplished since Stanford handed UConn its lone defeat, in overtime, on Nov. 17. Kiah Stokes, the 6-3 senior center with 140 blocked shots, is the American Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Sophomore Morgan Tuck, a 6-2 forward, averaged nearly 23 points per 40 minutes this season. And 6-4 superstar Breanna Stewart, the MVP of the past two Final Fours, has the swagger of a likely repeat Naismith Award winner, so much so that her coach baits her in news conferences.

Asked how Stewart has matured and improved in three years, Auriemma said: "I saw her get in a defensive stance the other day, and I thought that was a huge improvement. I know she's from Syracuse, and it takes them a long time to pick things up, but for her to learn to get in a stance after just three years, I thought that was a major accomplishment."

The coach dropped his wise-guy act long enough to add, "With Stewie, you're always trying to pick apart little things she needs to get better at, because the big things, she's really good at."

Nobody knows that better than McGee-Stafford, who played with Stewart on junior national teams. "[The Huskies'] inside game is very versatile," she said. "They have Tuck and Stewie who can stretch the floor and shoot for them, and they're also very big and like to block shots."

Sitting behind the interview table wearing glasses and sporting a brace-face smile, McGee-Stafford looks like a sensitive young poet -- which she is. On the court, though, she's every bit the ferocious athlete who's part of a proud athletic tradition. Her mother, Pamela McGee, is a decorated Olympian and WNBA player, and her brother JaVale plays for the 76ers.

McGee-Stafford made all the right noises about UConn's résumé, but didn't sound intimidated when diagnosing how to handle the Huskies' bigs. "Stay solid," she said, "and stay out of foul trouble."

The problem? Even if the Horns fight UConn to a draw inside, they can't match the Huskies' outside shooting. Texas hits just 3.8 3-pointers per game, while UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis by herself nearly matches that with 3.21 per contest, nailing 49.8 percent of her 3-point attempts. As a team, UConn averages 8.3 treys every time it takes the floor. "You have to limit their 3-point baskets," Aston said, "because they go on really big runs when they get out in transition and hit 3s."

Aston believes her squad, which emerged from not only a run of horrible luck but from the rugged Big 12 conference, will make a game of it, no matter the outcome. "I'll be really surprised if we don't show up and compete tomorrow," she said.

She knew that even during the worst of times, the talent on the roster, which includes three McDonald's high school All Americans, gave her team a chance to regroup. "Our team and our program is in such a good place right now," she said, "and that's the type of feeling you want to have at Texas."

Indeed, Texas women's hoops is becoming Texas-sized again, starting with a pair of tall women in the paint. Is it big enough to take down UConn?