From flawed to fantastic, showdown had it all
STORRS, Conn. -- Conceding defeat in Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee cautioned his supporters that the race to the nomination wasn't a contest to be decided in one night like it was some kind of athletic event. What mattered more, Huckabee suggested, was the process.The politicians can have their process; we'll keep our games. Top-ranked Connecticut's 82-71 victory Monday night against No. 3 North Carolina undeniably offered plenty of insight into how both teams fit in the process that is the road to the Final Four in Tampa, Fla. But in front of a capacity crowd of 10,167 at Gampel Pavilion, in a game that drew more than 100 requests for media credentials, two heavyweights went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes after spending the better part of three months beating up on largely tin-can opponents. It was frantic, flawed, flustered and fun. It was fantastic. "It was a lot of ups and downs in this game," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I actually enjoyed watching it." And in a game that began with the spotlight on players who weren't available to play, including injured Huskies Mel Thomas, Kalana Greene and Brittany Hunter, it was the kind of night that brought out the best in some of those who had the opportunity. North Carolina opened the game on an 8-0 run that quieted the crowd and brought back memories of its 23-point win at the Huskies' other home in Hartford two seasons ago. The Tar Heels, who had 18 more rebounds than Tennessee in a four-point loss earlier this season, were relentless on the boards. By the time Connecticut finally got a rebound nearly five minutes in, North Carolina already had seven rebounds and two second-chance baskets. Charde Houston had long since drawn Auriemma's ire and a spot on the bench after starting just her fifth game this season, and Tina Charles remained on the court in large part because without Hunter, there weren't any other post options. After a game earlier this season, Auriemma talked about how Charles didn't have the natural desire to control the boards. That seemed even more evident when contrasted with UNC's Erlana Larkins, who has played with a broken bone in her left hand for the past three weeks but managed five rebounds in the first five minutes Monday. "My thing with Tina is a team, a championship team, is defined by their ability to dominate the lane at both ends of the floor," Auriemma said. "We block shots, we defensive rebound, we score and get fouled on offense, we offensive rebound and we just do not allow any other team to get anything done in the lane at both ends of the floor." But as quickly as North Carolina took control inside (and it would have been a more commanding lead had it not been for the solo exploits of Renee Montgomery), Charles responded. Not only did she finish the game with seven blocks and a career-high-tying 19 rebounds, she compiled those numbers despite not getting her first of either until the game was nearly six minutes old.
In the past, Auriemma showed little hesitation to sit Houston for good if she came out slowly in a game. But with Kaili McLaren in foul trouble, Houston found her way back on the court. When she did, she had a message, beyond the standard frustrated exultation from her coach, that carried her to a season-high 15 points and six reboundsAs Houston explained, "Being on the bench and having Mel with her leg up [after tearing an ACL last week], elevated, yelling at me, telling me to go out there and play like I can play, that really touches your heart." Of course, Connecticut's rally was possible only because of a first-half performance by North Carolina that Auriemma described as nearly flawless. The Tar Heels have always been a team that loves to push tempo. They've also been a team that seemed at times in years past to push their tachometer too far into the red. But for the first 20 minutes, they looked like the team that entered the game ranked a respectable 33rd in assist-turnover ratio despite creating enough possessions to have averaged better than 90 points a game (down to 89.3 after the loss). Even in the half-court sets that UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell would prefer to minimize, they displayed a mix of size and vision that ought to worry ACC foes, beginning with Maryland on Saturday. "We lost the battle, but we haven't lost the war," Hatchell said. "I just told them in the locker room, at least we are playing Connecticut and Tennessee and competing on that level, which we hope is going to help us win the war eventually." On the flip side, Connecticut will hope that winning the battle doesn't end up as the high-water mark in losing the war. As Auriemma said, his team will never be as good as it was in the Virgin Islands when it had a completely healthy roster. But as he also pointed out, a backcourt of Montgomery, Maya Moore and Lorin Dixon remains on par with anything any other contender wants to throw his way. What remains to be seen is whether Charles plays like the best center in the country the rest of the way and Houston plays like something other than a four-year enigma. "The keys to our team tonight and going forward are Tina Charles, Kaili McLaren and Charde Houston," Auriemma said. "If the three of them play, not like over their heads and not to a level they can only reach once in awhile, if the three of them play to the level of their ability -- just to that level -- then we have a chance to win every game from here on out." But all of that is about the process of deciding a national champion. The story Monday night wasn't about what could happen in the future or what had happened in the past. From a brilliant beginning by North Carolina to a fabulous finish for Connecticut, it was about 40 minutes of the best basketball anyone could hope to see on a Monday in January. Sometimes it's easy to forget how much fun that can be. Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.