The good news? UConn takes lick, keeps on ticking
HARTFORD, Conn. -- At least Geno Auriemma knows now that his team can take a punch.
Candace Parker left the Huskies woozy in the middle stages of the second half, struggling to survive a standing eight count after the Tennessee star silenced the crowd at the Hartford Civic Center with a dunk, a block and a no-look assist on back-to-back possessions to stake her team to an 18-point lead. Ahead of the pack on the break that started the sequence, Parker appeared to smile as she crossed the free-throw line, savoring the sweetness of the impending flush in what will almost certainly be her final visit to enemy territory in Connecticut, no matter where she chooses to play next season.
It was a signature moment for Parker, coming just a few feet away from Mike Thibault, Anne Donovan and Pat Coyle, three WNBA coaches in attendance who would likely ponder Faust's bargain if it meant securing the prodigy's services for the next decade. And it seemed to spell out the difference between a veteran Tennessee team with a go-to star in Parker and a young Connecticut team with an enigmatic anchor in Charde Houston. It seemed to be a knockout blow.
Only the Huskies didn't throw in the towel, instead staging a rally as memorable as it was ultimately fruitless, erasing the 18-point deficit before falling 70-64 for their first loss of the season.
"We're not a team that's going to lay down and take a beating," an otherwise dispirited Brittany Hunter said in a brief moment of pride after the loss. "The first half was inexcusable, but we're just not a team that's going to go away easily."
Moral victories aren't Auriemma's stock and trade, especially when Pat Summitt is on the other end of the floor. In by far the team's biggest test of the season, the Huskies came up short and will drop into a second tier of contenders, along with Oklahoma (11-1), Ohio State (13-1) and LSU (14-1), slotted below Tennessee (14-1) and the ACC triumvirate of Maryland (17-0), North Carolina (17-0) and Duke (15-0) -- the last unbeaten Division I women's teams -- in the race for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
"A loss," Auriemma answered without hesitation when asked what he would take from the game. "We're 12-1 now. That's No. 1."
But even in that retort, and throughout his postgame comments, Auriemma displayed the kind of combativeness -- at one point even teasing his downcast players about their penchant for turnovers on behind-the-back dribbles -- that suggests the coach hasn't lost faith in a group whose potential seemed to make him genuinely excited in the preseason.
"There's no consolation in not winning," Auriemma said. "So you would have to say, if we were to fix some of the things we didn't do, and we were to play them again -- or a team like that -- in March, I would like our chances."
Houston answered the call in a way rarely seen last season, taking the lead in the second half and producing 16 of her 23 points and six of her eight rebounds. Auriemma said after the game that there was little more she could have done, instead lamenting the lack of production from other key players. He didn't name them, but the box score makes it difficult to look past the collective 7-for-25 shooting from Mel Thomas, Renee Montgomery and Kalana Greene.
But as much as anyone, it was Hunter who seemed to give the Huskies a foundation during the second-half run that began with Parker's dunk, a play that seemed to fire up UConn -- not the Lady Vols.
"Unfortunately, it really ticked me off," Hunter said of Parker's dunk. "I was really upset. I mean, it shouldn't take something like that to get anyone going. But, I mean, it was on your own court. Of course you're mad."
Hunter played 14 of her 19 minutes in the second half, entering the game seconds after Parker's no-look assist to Nicky Anosike gave Tennessee its largest lead at 47-29. Less than four minutes later, Hunter had accumulated four points, four rebounds and a block, and the Huskies had cut the lead to 50-40.
"I wish it was 39," Auriemma said of Hunter's minutes, a season high for a player still bedeviled by knee and leg injuries. "But unfortunately we're not at that point yet. But obviously she gives us something that very few teams have."
The national player of the year out of high school, Hunter's college career, first at Duke and then at Connecticut, has been only slightly less traumatic than that of former Connecticut star, and surgical frequent flier, Shea Ralph. At this point, the Huskies are fortunate when she's even able to play the role of role player.
"I need to give a spark to the team any way possible," Hunter said. "That's not necessarily points, but it's rebounds and all of the grunt work. Anything that I can do, basically, because I know I'm going to come in and out."
But as her three blocks and four offensive rebounds suggest, the toll taken on her body by the injuries is more evident in the minutes she plays than what she does with the minutes she gets.
"I'm excited I was able to play that much," Hunter said. "And I'm looking forward to playing -- or giving whatever I can in whatever time I get."
Unfortunately for the Huskies, it's unlikely Hunter will be able to contribute much more than she did on Saturday. At the very least, it won't be something the team is able to plan around.
"I can't tell you how many times I wished that we had unlimited use and unlimited opportunity to put Brittany in the game," Auriemma said. "If they've got Candace on one end that we can't guard, we've got a guy on our end that they can't guard. So it balances itself out a little bit. And with Charde, I think we actually have an advantage. If Brittany is in the game and Charde is in the game -- and Charde is playing like she played today -- obviously you saw in the second half that's a whole different dynamic for our team.
"But the reality is she probably got as many minutes today as you could hope to expect."
Reality was a mixed bag for the Huskies on Saturday. It was a day when they got the best out of Hunter, only to have that effort serve as a reminder of what they're missing. And it was a day when the team found out something about its resiliency by virtue of playing so tentatively and so poorly on defense in the first half as to dig themselves an 18-point hole against a team with the best player in the country.
The first step is getting up after you've been knocked down. The next step will be not walking into the same punch next time.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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