Geno Auriemma keeps waiting for it to all fall apart. Keeps waiting for the injuries that have shortened UConn‘s rotation and frazzled his nerves to become too much. For the Huskies to falter under the weight of it all.

Only, it keeps not happening.

Not during a regular season in which do-everything guard Paige Bueckers looked — and more importantly, played — injury-free for the first time in three years. Not during a Big East Tournament that ended the way they almost always seem to end when the Huskies are involved: their Hall of Fame coach and his perpetually star-laden roster, cutting down the nets.

And certainly not during March Madness, where over the course of two weeks a powerhouse curiously rendered an afterthought has provided a reminder — to Jackson State, Syracuse, Duke and Southern California — that for all the parity pervading the women’s game, UConn remains UConn.

And the biggest star in the women’s game knows it.

“It’s not like I wake up every morning and am like, ‘I wish I played UConn more’ — uhh, no,” Iowa guard Caitlin Clark said with a laugh. “That’s not something I wake up and think about.”

The two-time AP Player of the Year, however, understands what facing the Huskies on any stage means, let alone the biggest in the sport.

The Huskies remain a measuring stick. A litmus test. And when Clark and top-seeded Iowa (33-4) walk onto the floor at the women’s Final Four on Friday night, Bueckers and Auriemma and the third-seeded Huskies (33-5) will be standing in between the Hawkeyes and the goal Clark has admittedly spent most of her life chasing.

Last April, LSU raced past Iowa in the title game. The pain still lingers.

Fifty-three weeks later — an unprecedented year in which Clark has become a phenomenon and the women’s tournament has rivaled the men’s in TV ratings and perhaps surpassed it in star power — Clark understands the job is not finished.

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“I think if you could win a national championship to end your college career, you can’t really script it any better,” Clark said.

It’s a script that UConn used to follow with regularity. It’s been eight years since the Huskies won the last of the program’s 11 titles, though the standard remains.

It might not be particularly fair. Yet it’s one of the reasons Bueckers — now fully recovered from separate knee injuries that hampered her sophomore year and forced her to sit out all of last season — fully embraces. That pressure is one of the reasons she came to play for the Huskies.

“I think it really just speaks to the growth of women’s college basketball,” Bueckers said. “I think with UConn, the situation is different this year and it’s unique. But at the same time, it’s the same because UConn is expected to win even though they’re the underdog.”

An underdog (Iowa is a slight favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook) that learned something about itself during a winding journey to the program’s 23rd Final Four, including a seemingly endless stream of players lost for the season to injury.

“I’m sure it made us tougher in the end,” point guard Nika Muhl said. “I mean, we’re here. And nobody expected us to be here. And that only means that we used all of those things to make each other tough.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder understands the narrative surrounding two generational players facing off with so much at stake. She would like to offer a reminder that there will be more than two players on the court.

“I do not want this to be a game that’s promoted as Caitlin vs. Paige,” Bluder said. “And I know it already has been. But I don’t want that. I want it to be Iowa vs. UConn and let these two women do what they do best.”

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Clark and Bueckers last shared the floor during the 2021 tournament, when UConn pulled away for a 20-point victory in a Sweet 16 played inside the bubble because of the pandemic. Instead of a crowded arena, the game was played before a smattering of socially distanced fans in San Antonio. Their respective memories are foggy at best.

“It feels like forever ago,” Clark said. ” I was looking back and I saw some old footage of that game and we both look really, really young. It’s cool to see how our careers have evolved.”

UConn’s deep tournament run feels familiar. The way the Huskies reached Cleveland is not. The Huskies have won playing both fast and slow, showcasing an ability to get out and run during some games and playing lockdown defense at a plodding pace in others.

There won’t be much mystery when the ball is tipped against the Hawkeyes. Not with the country’s highest-scoring team on the other side of the floor.

“We’re playing Iowa basketball,” Clark said. “And Iowa basketball, on our scouting report it always says ‘push the ball.’ I think that’s what we want to do. Get it up the floor quickly. … That’s no secret to anybody.”

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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