UConn relishes role of underdog
Without superstar or loaded roster, Huskies still in title hunt
DENVER -- The Connecticut Huskies head into Sunday's national semifinal in a position they aren’t quite accustomed to. For once, the buzz around the Final Four site isn’t all about UConn and how loaded it is. Instead, the attention is directed at a towering 6-foot-8 Lady Bear and a program that has the chance to have a 40-0 season.
In the Huskies’ eyes, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the spotlight is shining in a different direction. Connecticut rather enjoys that they're allowed to somewhat fly under the radar.
“I guess now we’ve got to take on another role with being the underdog,” said Tiffany Hayes, the lone senior on the Connecticut squad that has gone 33-4 this season. “Like I said, it’s fine with us. It just gives us a chance to prove people wrong.”
Junior guard Kelly Faris added, “Basketball’s basketball in my mind. So whether you’re the top dog or the underdog, it’s still going to be the same game.”
Without having one go-to player this season, the Huskies as a group have been forced to mature, define roles and lead a more balanced attack on the court. Four players on the roster average double figures in scoring, and three of those are underclassmen.
“It’s almost fitting with this team that it’s a little bit of everybody [serving in a leadership role],” said associate head coach Chris Dailey. “This team is not as good unless everybody does their part. We’re not able either physically or emotionally to have one person do it all for us.
“Well I think last year, and this is nobody’s fault and Maya being such a great player, I think sometimes we stood around and watched Maya play as opposed to helping her out and play with her. This year, everyone has had to look at themselves to do their part.”
Senior Tiffany Hayes is in familiar territory at the Final Four, having made it to the Big Dance every year in her career at Connecticut. Now, she has one last chance to add a third ring to her hand, after being a part of the 2009 and 2010 championship teams.
“I think it’s good for us that all of us are able to step up in one night and we don’t just have one person doing everything,” Hayes said. “So there’s no superstars on our team. We’re all superstars, because any given night one of us could score 20 if need be. So I think it works out in our favor.
Before this season, Hayes has never really felt pressured to be a leader before for the Huskies, always having a Maya Moore or a Tina Charles to play that role. But this year is different. That difference has made Hayes step outside of her comfort zone and play a consistent leadership role, even though it may be in non-conventional methods.
“I think leadership can be defined in a lot of different ways,” Dailey said. “Tiffany leads by how hard she plays and all the things she tries to do for us. Rebound, penetrate, play good defense, run the offense. I’m not sure she’s a vocal leader and I don’t know that’s what she’s comfortable with. What she is comfortable with is helping the younger players off the court and helping them on the court.”
Hayes and the rest of the tenured Huskies who have been there and done that, have been vital in helping to prepare the younger Connecticut players who have been thrown to the wolves. It’s not often that you see a Final Four squad starting two sophomores, and relying on several freshmen to put big numbers on the board. Regardless, they have found a way to make it work by finding trust in young players who needed to learn the Husky way of doing things.
Underclassmen make up more than half of the roster, but they also combine for more than half of the team’s points and rebounds. They have stepped up to the challenge because, as Dailey said, they've had to.
“The younger players are playing such major roles probably because of need,” Dailey said. “You never like expecting freshmen or sophomores to have to perform at a certain level in order for your chances to get to go to the Final Four to be met. But that’s what happened.”
Among the young guns, freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis came into her own quickly for the Huskies putting up big numbers and playing a pivotal role quickly on a squad that had big perimeter shoes to fill with the loss of Maya Moore. Named the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, she has not lost her luster throughout the NCAA tournament, continuing to come off the bench and provide yet another threat for the opposing team.
“I think [Kaleena’s] a lot more mature than she thinks,” Hayes said. “She knows Sunday is just another game, but she’s definitely nervous. You have to go out there and play your all like you usually do.”
And that goes for sophomores Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson as well.
Many things have changed for the Huskies this season, with such a young roster, no go-to players, and the adjustments that come along with those challenges. But at least one thing remains the same. They are at the Women’s Final Four yet again, and have just two games ahead of them to take home an eighth national title.