Will anyone be able to stop UConn's quest for another title?
DURHAM, N.C. – What follows are not tidings of great joy for any team in women’s college basketball with an idea of stopping the Connecticut Huskies.
They are back. Not back as national championship contenders, because they did that last year. Back as a hurricane-force wind blowing through the game. Back as both an unstoppable force, and immovable object.
Back on the road to greatness. Geno Auriemma has passed this way before.
Such was the message Tuesday night. No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdowns are supposed to be decided by increments. Top-ranked Connecticut blew through Duke and led by 27 before winning 83-61. And when it was over, the only thing to wonder was how good these Huskies might turn out to be.
Just where is the horizon for a team that has already played four ranked opponents, been fully healthy for only two games, yet is still 11-0 with a 38.2-point average winning margin?
“We talked about that in the locker room after the game, matter of fact,” Auriemma said, walking down a hallway in Cameron Indoor Stadium. “We didn’t feel necessarily last year we had a great team. I thought it was a really good team.
“This particular team has a chance to be a great team.”
So sayeth the man with eight national titles, four of them with perfect records. So he ought to know what one looks like.
We can start with sheer statistics. These are not normal numbers, these are Connecticut numbers.
The Huskies have scored 536 in the first half this season. Their 11 opponents – including Duke, Stanford and Maryland from the top 10 – have scored 536 for the game.
In 11 games, Connecticut’s largest deficit has been two points.
The Huskies have made 140 free throws. Their opponents have shot 96.
They have 366 field goals for the season, and 245 assists, meaning someone’s pass has led to 67 percent of their baskets. Against Duke, it was 25 of 30.
Connecticut has now been in 18 No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matches in its history, and won 15 of them.
There are rational explanations for the supernatural figures.
Take the big-game expertise.
“We come to Connecticut to play in these games,” said Breanna Stewart, who took over last year’s Final Four to be named most outstanding player as a freshman, and scored 24 Tuesday against Duke. “We know we have a huge target on our back and teams are all going to give is their best run.”
Or the assists total.
“If they can’t pass, generally we don’t recruit a kid,” Auriemma said. “So it’s part of what we believe in. If you’re not a good passer, it’s going to be hard to play for us. Because if every time you’re open you get the ball, but every time somebody else is open you can’t get them the ball, pretty soon you’re going to stand out.”
Or the dominance. A lot of that comes down to talent. Auriemma noted he has two All-Americans in Stefanie Dolson with her inside presence and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with her outside firepower.
Not to mention Stewart. “We’ve got a guy who tells me every day that she’s an All-American, but the jury is still out on her,” Auriemma said, trying to sound serious. “So we’ve got three players that are pretty unique as opposed to every other team in this country.”
This is what Connecticut All-Americans do:
Mosqueda-Lewis had not played in more than a month because of a nerve contusion on her elbow. She came off the bench against Duke and hit 7 of 11 3-pointers. “The only thing that I’ve been doing is shooting basically, so I was hoping I was going to make a couple,” she said.
When Dolson wasn’t scoring 14 points or grabbing nine rebounds or blocking two shots or getting two steals – a full night for a 6-5 post – she was finding the open teammate for six assists. “Some centers in this country don’t get six assists in a year,” Auriemma said.
Stewart owned the game the first half.
|Nov. 11||No. 3 Stanford||W||76-57|
|Nov. 15||No. 8 Maryland||W||72-55|
|Nov. 17||No. 13 Penn State||W||71-52|
|Nov. 22||Boston U.||W||96-38|
|Nov. 24||St. Bonaventure||W||88-39|
|Dec. 1||Ohio State||W||70-49|
|Dec. 5||UC Davis||W||97-37|
|Dec. 17||No. 2 Duke||W||83-61|
“People talk about defensive pressure,” Auriemma said. “But we have five guys on the floor that can score, so the more we make shots, that kind of offensive pressure helps our defense. Because now you have to make shots.”
An uncomplicated equation, it would seem. Connecticut has more tools than anyone else. And yet it is not that uncomplicated. Not if these Huskies want to join the pantheon of Connecticut teams that took their lavish talent and became something even more. That maintained their purpose, blowout after blowout.
Auriemma talked Tuesday of trying to keep things simple for big games. Of “under-coaching.” He asks his players to imagine an arena without fans, coaches, officials. Just players vs. players. Who would carry the day?
“As long as we can convince them of that crap,” he said, “ we can win.”
He also has the advantage of players who came to him to chase greatness, and the tests such as Tuesday that must prove it, one way or the other.
“I think the kind of kid that comes to Connecticut probably thinks, `That’s why I play basketball. I want to play in those kind of games,”’ he said.
Still, at the heart of it is a lineup that fills every need. Auriemma listed off how he has players who can shoot, who can pass, who can think, who won’t panic in the bright lights. He has dependable stars and an improving bench, and a positive karma in the locker room.
“This group likes each other and the coaches like them. That’s not always the case.”
Health is always the unknown. And this year, so is whether the thinner American Conference – rather than the Big East – will be enough to keep the Huskies sharp.
"A lot is going to happen between now and March. We’ve still got a lot we have to do,” Auriemma said. “They have the ability to become a great team. I don’t know if we’re great right now. They can be as good as some of the teams I’ve had, no question.’’
It’s another juggernaut from Storrs. Unbeatable, until someone proves differently.