Huskies seek win, even a little swagger, at No. 2 UNC
As months go, January is as unlikely to produce a basketball catharsis as it is to produce a sunburn. It's a month for preparing for the immediate future of March and April more than a month for rewriting history or righting past missteps.
Win or lose in January, no matter the opponent, and there is another game to prepare for in a few days.
But with the sun shining and temperatures climbing into the lower 70s around Chapel Hill this past weekend, things already feel a little out of the ordinary this January. And even the warmth outside isn't enough to entirely erase the chill still lingering in the air from Geno Auriemma's words in the aftermath of last season's game against North Carolina. Words that suggest there is something on the line when No. 5 Connecticut visits No. 2 North Carolina on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
"Mainly I felt bad that for the first time in 20 years I didn't know what to say," Auriemma said Dec. 5, 2005, after the Tar Heels had beaten his Huskies 77-54 in the Hartford Civic Center, the worst home loss of the coach's illustrious tenure at the school. "I am sitting here speechless. That is not me. That is what coaches do. They coach. They instruct. They direct. At the end of the game, I am powerless."
It was the low point of Connecticut's 2005-06 season and the low point of the two seasons after Diana Taurasi's departure, an era that will remain an inescapable codicil to any discussion for as long as the Huskies struggle to match both the championships and the sellouts Taurasi helped create.
Eventually, the same team that spurred such bleak language from Auriemma after losing to North Carolina rallied to his challenge. It played Tennessee tough before losing in Knoxville, knocked off No. 3 LSU in Hartford and took Duke to overtime before falling 63-61 in a regional final in the NCAA Tournament. But a team that found its soul as a group of hard-nosed, willing warriors never seemed to completely reclaim the confidence that most, including the man in charge, associate with Connecticut.
"You cannot play at Connecticut if you don't have confidence," Auriemma said after the North Carolina game. "For one of the very few times in the 20 years that I have been here, I walk out on the floor and I don't know that my team exudes the same confidence that I do."
That no longer seems to be the case this season.
Highly touted freshman Tina Charles arrived on campus talking about wanting to win four championships. She wasn't boasting or grandstanding; she just didn't seem capable of envisioning a world where success wasn't the end result of her team taking the court.
It hasn't necessarily been easy going for Charles in her first season, but she leads the Huskies in rebounds (8.8 per game) and blocks (1.9 per game) despite averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game.
Fellow freshman Kaili McLaren, who has replaced Charles in the starting lineup in three of the past four games (Charles started against Syracuse on Saturday as McLaren nursed a foot injury), offered perhaps the best snapshot moment of the energy and confidence this year's freshman class has added. Matched in the post against Candace Parker early in the opening minutes of last week's game against Tennessee, McLaren showed no hesitation in bulling her way to the basket against the college game's most famous player. She missed the half-hook on that particular play, but McLaren kept going at Tennessee's post players and provided one of the only sparks for Connecticut in the first half.
Regardless whether she was the best player on the block at that instant, McLaren acted as if she believed she was. But it's not just the newcomers who are playing with confidence.
Charde Houston, perhaps the ultimate symbol of Connecticut's wavering mental toughness and unrealized potential, entered the fall talking about having rededicated herself to basketball and to Auriemma's program. Most observers scoffed -- and many still roll their eyes whenever Houston throws a ball away or misses a cut -- but she has backed up all the words with numbers.
Forget the points, rebounds and field goal percentage, individual numbers that always have favored Houston. In 31 games last season, she committed 85 turnovers and recorded just 28 assists. Through 15 games this season, she already has 29 assists against just 31 turnovers. Houston's one-on-one ability has never been in question, but her passing and turnovers suggest she's playing with far more confidence within the framework of an offense.
The only problem is that for all the new confidence, and for all the positive vibes circling this team in the preseason, the Huskies -- who bounced back from the loss against Tennessee to beat Seton Hall by 48 points and Syracuse by 31 points -- are still looking for a signature win.
They showed the ability in the second half against Tennessee, but moral victories are no more the real thing than was last year's grind-it-out win against LSU. It has been a long time since the Huskies beat an elite team by executing better than their opponents. Beat them by simply being the better team.
More than the actual victory, which at this point in the regular season might be more important to fans and media than to the coaching staff and players in the grand scheme of things, it's that sense of walking off the court knowing they outplayed an elite team that will confirm the confidence Auriemma demands is back for good.
North Carolina got that win two years ago against Connecticut. Just 10-27 against ranked teams in the five seasons preceding the 2004-05 campaign, the Tar Heels beat the fourth-ranked Huskies 71-65 in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 21, 2004. Including that win and last season's romp in Hartford, the Tar Heels are 18-4 against ranked teams since, losing to the eventual national champions in each of their past two NCAA Tournament appearances.
"I think it shows that our team can do anything," Ivory Latta said after last year's win against Connecticut. "We had to get real focused for this game. It shows a lot of team focus and cooperation."
Monday's game won't be Connecticut's last opportunity to turn confidence into control. After all, it's only January. But with a national audience and a hostile environment, it's a perfect opportunity to put that dark day in Hartford to rest for good and open the next chapter of the story.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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