Tuesday, March 16, 2004 Updated: March 18, 9:16 AM ET
UConn defense must dig in
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
First, let's make sure everybody is on the same page: The fact that Connecticut didn't get a No. 1 seed means nothing.
Nobody should be counting out the Huskies. They are a great team, the two-time defending champion and, let's face it, have the luxury of playing close to home (Storrs to Bridgeport = 83.52 miles) as they try to become the first team in NCAA history to reach five straight Final Fours.
And with Diana Taurasi, the fifth-best all-time scorer in NCAA history, on the roster, Connecticut must be considered a contender.
A look at the East's No. 2 seed:
1. What has impressed you most about Connecticut so far this season?
Barbara Turner is the Huskies second-best scorer and rebounder this season.
I've looked at the numbers, and even though Taurasi's stats have dipped over the last 13 games -- she's averaging 15.5 points on the season but just 11.6 in that span, with four single-digit scoring performances -- she is a better player today than she was at this point last season. Mentally, Taurasi is smarter, probably tougher and making even better decisions.
Also, because UConn's inside-outside game hasn't been as effective this season, Taurasi hasn't seen as many open looks this year. Every single one of her shots is contested, and with a lot more people coming at her defensively, Taurasi has been forced to pass rather than shoot, which is exactly what the defense wants because it puts the ball in other Huskies' hands.
Sophomore Barb Turner, who impressed me as a freshman, also has stepped up this season. She's a hard worker who's lightning-quick and gets on the glass. In 25.8 minutes per game, Turner ranks second on the team in scoring and rebounding while shooting 55.1 percent from the field.
2. What has surprised you most about Connecticut?
After Taurasi carried her teammates last season, a lot of people anticipated her supporting cast to step up. We expected Taurasi to get some help and to be able to rely on her teammates a bit more.
In most cases, that has not happened.
Last season, four UConn players averaged double-figure scoring. Turner and Jessica Moore combined for 20.5 points in the paint, and Ann Strother tallied 10 points a game.
This season, only three players -- Taurasi, Turner (13.4 points) and Strother (11.3) -- are averaging at least 10 points. Moore averages 9.3 (and a team-best 6.7 rebounds). But with Taurasi averaging almost three fewer points than last season, someone must pick up the slack.
While the starters' numbers could be better -- and Strother needs to be less dependent on Taurasi, attack more and look for her own shot, which would force foes to guard both sides of the floor -- the Husky reserves just haven't stepped up as much as we thought they would.
UConn is starter heavy, and that's fine. But when your bench can't provide much spark, it puts that much more pressure on your starters.
Though Willnett Crockett only adds 4.3 ppg and the Valley sisters, Morgan and Ashley, combine for 5.2 points in nearly 23 minutes, I expected more production from Ashley Battle. Coming off the bench to average just less than 20 minutes Battle is good for 7.8 points, 4.6 rebounds (third on the team), 1.6 steals and 1.5 assists. She must be able to be an additional scoring threat for UConn.
Even Michael Jordan couldn't win a championship until the other guys around him stepped it up.
3. What are Connecticut's biggest strength and weakness?
Ashley Battle could be an X-factor for Connecticut.
The Huskies can pour on the points, averaging 76.1 per game. Sometimes, opponents just can't keep up with them.
Also, don't buy into the media hype that Taurasi and coach Geno Auriemma are fueding. They are superstars and national champions who will get on the same page once the games start, if not already. Look at what teammates Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper did in the WNBA. They put their problems aside and went and won four straight championships. And they didn't even like each other. Conversely, Taurasi and Auriemma are two peas in a pod, and having them on the same bench seems unfair for the rest of the teams.
Weakness? UConn's four losses this season were very eye-opening. Unlike most losses, rebounding and turnovers weren't factors. Defense was.
73-70 loss to Boston College: The Eagles shot 63 percent from the field, including a 69.2 percent accuracy in the first half. They were also 5-for-8 (62.5 percent) from beyond the arc.
59-56 loss to Villanova: The Wildcats shot 70 percent from the field in the second half to overcome a 29-23 halftime deficit.
66-51 loss to Notre Dame: The Irish shot 59.5 percent from the field, while UConn struggled with 30.9 percent accuracy from the field and went just 3-for-18 (16.7 percent) from downtown.
68-67 loss to Duke: After shooting just 21.9 percent in the first half to fall behind 35-18 at the break, the Blue Devils rallied to win behind 46.5 percent accuracy from the field in the second half.
See the pattern? Yes, sometimes your opponents' shots are just going to fall and there's not much you can do. But these four losses seem to indicate that at times, UConn needs to play tougher defense and can no longer go out and have a shootout or just outscore teams. You have to outshoot the opponent, too.
The fact that UConn led at halftime in two of these losses -- and that Notre Dame, Villanova and Boston College each shot 60 percent or better in the second half -- is alarming. That means that in crunch time, when the game was on the line, UConn didn't do what it had to defensively to preserve the win. And in particular, the Huskies didn't defend the 3-pointer.
4. Who's the wild card for Connecticut that we might not have heard much about?
Battle. As mentioned above, she needs to step up with some mighty minutes.
She's tough, can run the floor and shoot the 3, and her defensive stops can be key. She has a nice stat line, but she needs to increase those numbers across the board and be a bigger, consistent presence at both ends of the court.
5. What does Connecticut need to do to win the NCAA title?
Go out and defend teams. The Huskies need to play their style, push tempo. The posts need to run the floor and continue to outrebound the opponent.
At this point, the Huskies can't be afraid to go after what is theirs. They are the champs until someone else wins it all.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.