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TAMPA -- It's being billed as the "Saturday Showdown" and when it's all over, there will only be one unbeaten team in women's Division I basketball.
Tonight at 7 (ESPN2), No. 1 Duke (20-0) will host No. 2 Connecticut (19-0) at Cameron Indoor Stadium -- the first sellout of a women's game at Duke.
It has been hyped more than any game since the Huskies and Tennessee met in early January, but for Duke coach Gail Goestenkors and UConn's Geno Auriemma, the key is getting the players to keep it in context. After all, it is neither a conference nor NCAA Tournament game.
"I think we understand it's an out-of-conference game against a great opponent that's very well -coached," Goestenkors said. "It's an opportunity to learn and to grow, nothing more, nothing less. That's the way we're viewing this game. We just think it's a great opportunity for us to find out who we are at this point in the season and help prepare us for the ACC and NCAA tournaments."
This is a match made in heaven. Both are undefeated and UConn is carrying an NCAA-record 58-game winning streak. The game will feature arguably the top two players in the nation: Duke's Alana Beard, the left-handed guard who slashes to the basket and scores as easily as she defends, and Connecticut's Diana Taurasi, a big-time shooter with a flashy style.
Beard, last season's ACC Player of the Year, averages 23.5 points. Taurasi, the only remaining starter from last year's undefeated national championship team, averages 17.8 despite playing with an ankle injury.
The two roomed together while playing for Auriemma in the World Junior Basketball Championships in 2001.
"It was fun," Beard said. "I had a great time playing with her. I think she's a great player. She can shoot the 3, she can post up and she can do mostly everything. I just see her as a great player. She's definitely one of the best players out there."
The Huskies and Blue Devils haven't met since the 1998-99 season, the first meeting between Goestenkors and Auriemma.
Despite Duke's ascension to the ranks of the elite over the past several years, Duke and UConn have played just three times, with UConn winning twice.
Anyone who witnessed the Final Four last season shouldn't be surprised Duke is back in this position. The Blue Devils were loaded last season, but youth, injuries and transfers took a toll by the end.
UConn, however, is a bit of a surprise. The Huskies lost four of their starting five from last season, and though many of the team's players saw playing time last year, Taurasi is the only seasoned veteran.
It's all about mind-set, Auriemma said.
"I never let our players feel anything other than tremendous confidence," he said.
HAYDEN RETURNS: Florida All-America center Vanessa Hayden returned to the lineup Thursday night after missing 10 games with a foot injury.
Her arrival didn't signal an end to Florida's six-game losing streak, but showed what fans have known all along -- the Gators need Hayden on the court.
Hayden had just five points on 2-of-10 shooting, but had a team-high eight rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes.
Florida, which had lost several recent games by more than 40 points, at least kept this one respectable, losing 78-64. Hernando's Bernice Mosby, a beacon for the Gators this season, had a team-high 16 points and six rebounds.
South Carolina coach Susan Walvius, who took over the woeful Gamecocks program that is now ranked No. 16, said she sees similarities in the Gators.
"Florida is exactly where we were a couple of years ago," she said. "They are going to win some ball games in the SEC, especially with the return of Vanessa Hayden. They are extremely quick and athletic and every player on the floor can play. The team has a good attitude. They are feisty."
-- Antonya English covers women's basketball. She can be reached at (813) 226-3389 or firstname.lastname@example.org.