Commentary

UConn masterpiece painted by numbers

Updated: March 4, 2008, 12:49 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Earlier this season, Purdue coach Sharon Versyp marveled that Connecticut's defense was still the topic du jour after Geno Auriemma's team hung triple-digits on her team in a blowout victory on the Boilermakers' home court.

On Monday, the top-ranked Huskies put on an offensive clinic despite finishing nearly 17 points below their season scoring average in a 66-46 victory over fourth-ranked Rutgers.

Sometimes a team's weakest link in a game is what makes the strongest statement.

At their best, any number of Connecticut players can turn a basketball court into their own personal canvas. That's what you get with a roster of high school All-Americans.

Tina Charles finished with 17 rebounds against Rutgers, and it wasn't her best performance of the season on the glass -- it wasn't even her best performance on the glass against a top-five team, that was a 19-rebound effort against North Carolina. Maya Moore controlled the game for possessions at a time, broke the school's freshman scoring record (previously held by Svetlana Abrosimova) and wasn't even the leading scorer on the night for the Huskies. Renee Montgomery led the team in scoring with 21 points and still merits only the bronze medal in this catalog of accomplishments.

But to avenge their only loss of the season and earn the outright Big East regular-season title -- the 13th time in 15 years they've earned at least a share -- the Huskies had to come together in an effort that more closely resembled painting by numbers on the deck of a ship caught in high seas than individual masters guiding brushes over a masterpiece.

"It's a fun type of basketball to play," Auriemma said. "I don't know if you could do that all year and be ready for the NCAA Tournament. … A game like this, it's not going to be run up and down and score 90. You're going to have to grind out every possession."

It was almost fitting, although Auriemma was unlikely to appreciate the poetic irony, that Connecticut fared the worst when singled out for trips to the free-throw line.

During a rather slow performance of the national anthem, a lone vendor stood between two sections of the stands behind the Rutgers bench, his plastic branch of pretzels held awkwardly at attention. It seemed a rather fitting tribute to a Scarlet Knights team that regularly leaves those who come near it on a basketball court feeling awkwardly alone.

Coming into the game, Rutgers had limited its first 28 opponents to an average of 18 field goals per game. Of those field goals, only 56 percent came attached to an assist. Contrast that with Connecticut, the nation's second-most prolific scoring offense, which entered the game having averaged 32 field goals per game with assists on 65 percent of them.

When the teams met in New Jersey four weeks ago, Rutgers got the best of things in style and scoreboard, even as the game became a second-half shootout. Connecticut managed 28 field goals in a 73-71 loss but recorded just 15 assists and struggled to maintain any kind of rhythm against nearly constant pressure.

[+] EnlargeTina Charles
David Butler II/US PresswireTina Charles had 15 points and 17 rebounds for the Huskies, who won their second straight Big East regular-season title and 13th in the last 15 seasons.

Monday night, the Huskies hit 26 field goals and had assists on 19 of them.

In one of the few instances that C. Vivian Stringer employed her vaunted "55" press with a depleted roster down to eight healthy bodies, Charles took the inbounds and dribbled across midcourt. There, she pulled up and fired a lateral to equally sizable post Kaili McLaren, who in turn snapped off a backdoor pass to Moore for a layup.

Six players had multiple assists for the Huskies in the game, but nothing fit the night quite as well as the fact that McLaren led the way with a career-high five assists.

"Kids are confident doing things they're good at," Auriemma said. "So when you know you're good at something, you can't wait to do it. She knows she's a hell of a passer. She knows she can get the ball from here to there better than anybody else on our team -- at least any big guy. So guys love when she's got the ball at the high post, because they know if they move and they get in the right spot, she's going to find them."

She wasn't alone on this night. None of the Huskies were alone. Not only were the 19 assists far and away the most assists Rutgers allowed all season, they also led to 73 percent of Connecticut's baskets.

Auriemma talked after the game about making a "concerted effort" to keep the pace down after a long week of travel that included stops at LSU and DePaul. But if the Huskies didn't run the Scarlet Knights to death, they came close to passing them to death.

"I finally convinced these guys how to run offense," Auriemma said. "It's taken a long time. To them -- you know what offense is to them? One pass, somebody shoots. You know what a slowdown game is? Two passes, then somebody shoots. You know what a stall is? Three passes and somebody takes a contested shot. … I had to convince them over the last week of practice that if you want to win, you have to be able to grind it out, grind it out, grind it out."

Not surprisingly, that's not quite the way Montgomery saw it. But whether the proverbial porridge had been too hot or too cold, the general theme that both coach and junior leader hit on after the game was one of a team finding things to be just right on offense.

"I think it tells a lot about our team," Montgomery said. "Sometimes we're too unselfish, we'll overpass or somebody will have a wide-open shot and we'll make another pass. But I think it just feels good when you make that extra pass and then they make the shot."

The catch to an evening of good feelings, capped by injured starters Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene taking the court for the conference title celebration, is that Connecticut has been here before. Just last season, the Huskies faced Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J., on the final day of the conference regular season and left with a 70-44 win.

A week later, the Scarlet Knights left Hartford with a 55-47 win in the conference tournament final and the momentum that carried them all the way to the Final Four.

With a No. 1 seed still possibly on the line for Rutgers, Stringer's team isn't likely to sleepwalk through a return trip to Connecticut's capital this weekend.

Only time will tell whether the mood Monday night was more than a passing fancy.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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