Preview: Expect UConn and Oregon to leave it all out on the floor

United States v Connecticut UConn stars Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams honor the memory of Gianna Bryant before their exhibition game against Team USA last week. | Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The deaths of Kobe Bryant, Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester intimately impacted members of the No. 3 Oregon Ducks and No. 4 UConn Huskies. Yet, expect the action on the floor in Storrs to be intense: The winner can claim a clearer path to a No. 1 seed in the fast-approaching NCAA Tournament.

A week removed from the tragic helicopter accident that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, Gigi Bryant and the seven others aboard the aircraft, it seems trite to make every discussion of basketball a memorial. At the same time, it seems impossible, if not irresponsible, to avoid recognizing how much the loss of these lives has rocked the world of basketball, especially the world of women’s basketball.

The presences of Kobe, Gigi and her Mamba teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, will be felt when the No. 3 Oregon Ducks (19-2, 9-1 Pac-12) face No. 4 UConn Huskies (19-1, 9-0 AAC) in Storrs, Connecticut, on Monday night.

On Saturday, Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu shared a touching Instagram tribute to Bryant and the “little Mambas,” writing to Gigi, Alyssa and Pay Pay:

Never stop shining your light! I was blessed to have been apart of you lives and to inspire you, but now you inspire me. Keep working on those fade away jumpers up in heaven. RIP little mambas.

Gigi aspired to become a Husky. Alyssa, however, wished to be a Duck. Her father John, who also was in the helicopter last Sunday, has been a star baseball player at Oregon.

Coincidentally, UConn star Megan Walker participated in the same training session as Ionescu, along with Kobe and the “little Mambas.” Walker offered a memorial to the Mamba Mentality.

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In other words, this game is about much more than basketball. It will be testament to how basketball can bring young women together, and inspire them to be better both on and off the court.

The game also is very much about basketball. In the big picture, a win for Oregon could symbolize a shift in the dominance hierarchy of women’s college basketball. Based on a recent Twitter post, the Ducks are not shy about staking their claim to the Huskies’ ground.

This show of intensity reflects the immediate importance of the contest. The victor very well could secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with the other relegated to a No. 2 seed.

Expect the aforementioned Ionescu and Walker to be the engines of their teams’ successes.

During her time in green and gold, Ionescu has raised her play in big games. No one would be surprised if the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles dropped a historic line on Monday to lead the Ducks to victory on the Huskies’ vaunted home floor.

In contrast, if UConn avoids its second home loss of the season, Walker most likely will be the reason. In addition to using her savvy offensive to score the basketball, Walker will employ her defensive prowess to foil Oregon’s attack. Look for Auriemma to task her with frustrating Satou Sabally, a dynamic force for the Ducks’ offense.

Along with Sabally, other talents, like Ruthy Hebard, have the ability to do damage. In Oregon’s demolition of Colorado on Saturday, Hebard became the program’s all-timer leader in field goals made, tallying a total of 888 in her four-year career. Needless to say, she will find a way to put the ball in the hoop.

For UConn, Crystal Dangerfield can prove that Ionescu is not guaranteed to repeat as winner of the Nancy Lieberman Award, an honor bestowed on the nation’s best point guard. With sturdiness and steadiness, Dangerfield reminds of Chris Paul’s approach toward controlling the action while also scoring timely buckets with a sure stroke. Dangerfield is coming off one of her best games of the season: 24 points in the Huskies’ Thursday night thrashing of Cincinnati, including five 3-pointers. She also dealt five assists.

Even as Monday’s night matchup will start with heavy hearts, expect the action soon to become an excellent exhibition of Mamba Mentality — a fierce battle for women’s basketball supremacy.

Game information

No. 4 UConn Huskies vs. No. 3 Oregon Ducks

When: Monday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT

How to watch: ESPN2