Rutgers' 'D' digs in as UConn falls short again
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Maybe championships aren't won with defense, but No. 19 Rutgers proved Tuesday night that conference titles can be won without much offense.
Rutgers denied second-ranked Connecticut a chance to confirm its regular-season conference perfection with a 55-47 win in the final of the Big East tournament, avenging two earlier losses this season against the Huskies and preventing Geno Auriemma's team from winning a third consecutive conference tournament crown.
It was an improbable win in almost too many ways to count.
Rutgers junior Matee Ajavon hit just 4-of-22 shots from the floor, displaying a touch as frosty as the negative wind chills that buffeted Hartford at times during the tournament. And she still won tournament MVP.
The Scarlet Knights were outrebounded 44-36 in the championship game -- in fact, with just more than four minutes remaining in the first half, Rutgers had seven rebounds and Connecticut's Kalana Greene had eight.
And the biggest shot of all came on a 3-pointer from Epiphanny Prince, a freshman who had finished the regular season in a 4-of-19 slide from behind the arc.
"They played well enough to win; that's the best you can say about it," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said after the game, meaning it as a compliment.
And aesthetics aside, anyone who looks at the result as a fluke of circumstances, and especially any potential NCAA Tournament opponent who looks past the result, is missing the point. They might not always shoot this poorly or fall this short on the glass, but this is how the Scarlet Knights had to win their first Big East tournament.
Not many teams are more schooled in basketball survival skills. Their defense serves almost as self-defense, equally protecting their own vulnerabilities and poking holes in an opponent's offense. And if C. Vivian Stringer's young team gets that as much as it seemed they did in the final two rounds in Hartford, it is a dangerous bunch.
From a group that scored 100 points in its exhibition opener and then proceeded to lose the right to use its own locker room when it failed to live up to Stringer's demands, the Scarlet Knights emerged on the other side as a perfect reflection of their coach's philosophy.
"It's wonderful, because it's like an artist when you mold," Stringer said. "All you want is the players to do is to give everything they can. Sometimes it might seem like it's more than what they're capable of, but it was beautiful to put them together and to see them finally get to be on the same page."
The second-ranked Huskies entered the game shooting 49 percent as a team, the best mark for any Auriemma squad since 2003-04 (and a figure that reached 54 percent in the win in Piscataway on Feb. 26). Whether in the post from Tina Charles and Charde Houston, cutting to the basket from Kalana Greene or shooting from outside from Mel Thomas or Renee Montgomery, the Huskies are balanced and disciplined on offense.
But after looking at the tape of the two losses in the regular season, Stringer felt it wasn't inherent flaws in the defensive system that hurt her team.
"We looked at how well did they really execute, come clean and get open shots that the pattern was supposed to give them, and it wasn't near what you would think that it was," Stringer said. "They were killing us on transition, they were killing us on rebounds. So we tried to do some things."
With Rutgers able to employ their coach's signature "55" defense (the instructional DVD is a bargain at $39.95), exerting all-out pressure at all points on the court, Connecticut's offensive continuity broke down.
At halftime, the Huskies had 13 second-chance points, seven points off turnovers and two fast-break points. Not great totals but not nearly as bad as at the end of the game, when they still had added exactly one second-chance basket to that line. Everything Auriemma's team got in the second half, they had to earn the hard way.
"Executing at the half-court level can be kind of unnerving when you have to get it done," Stringer said.
The loss for Connecticut matters; it matters more than Duke's loss against NC State or Tennessee's loss against LSU in their respective conference tournaments. It matters because this is the only likely No. 1 seed that hasn't beaten one of the other likely No. 1 seeds this season. As a result, this team still has something to prove in big games.
And yet Auriemma had a point in downplaying the result after the fact, pointing out the difficulty of any team winning 22 in a row, as the Huskies would have needed to do in order to win a national championship had they won on Tuesday night.
"I considered it one bad game," Auriemma said. "This game doesn't have any bearing on the next game we play. I think if you're a bad basketball program then you allow things like this to change who you are. It doesn't change anything starting next week."
Connecticut's performance with something on the line, especially in the closing minutes that saw them shut down completely on offense, leaves unanswered some lingering questions about just where they fit in the top tier of teams. But ultimately those questions will only be answered by how the Huskies fare in the NCAA Tournament, and that still would have been the case even if Prince's 3-pointer hadn't gone down and the Huskies had held on for a win or if they had come out and won by 20.
Tuesday night wasn't about confirming or denying Connecticut's place among the elite. It wasn't even about confirming Rutgers' place as a championship contender, although the Scarlet Knights have lost just three times this calendar year and might climb as high as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
At a time of year when everything is about what happens next, Tuesday's win proved that there is still value in the present. For Rutgers, winning the Big East tournament was about where they've come from and where they are. What happens next? All in good time.
"We definitely have grown," Essence Carson said. "I'm sure everyone here can agree with me on that. Coach did a great job preparing us physically and mentally."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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