Supporting cast answers call for UConn
STORRS, Conn. -- For about the first 15 minutes of Monday's game, Louisville executed a terrific game plan to perfection against Connecticut. The nation's top-ranked team spent the rest of the game demonstrating why it remains perfect in pursuit of a championship.
Honorary degrees aren't often handed out in bulk, but every fan in attendance Monday should have made his or her way out of Gampel Pavilion with some sort of recognition for participating in the graduate basketball seminar that played out in the first half of No. 1 Connecticut's 93-65 victory over No. 10 Louisville.
Louisville arrived in Connecticut with one of the nation's best individual talents in Angel McCoughtry, a stifling defense, a rising coaching star and a game plan crafted with five days of preparation to pinpoint what few pressure points exist for the Huskies.
And for almost an entire half, it worked really well.
Unfortunately, playing to 21 only counts at the YMCA.
Like a cat momentarily stunned by a mouse's fighting back, Connecticut didn't allow itself to take a second step backward after initially yielding ground to the upstart's attack.
"We go into games with the idea that the other team has to beat us," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We're not going to lose a game; we're not going to do anything to give away the game, and against some of the better teams that we've played, we've gone out there and played to win and made plays that winning teams have to make."
By the final minutes, much of the crowd had made an early exit into a frigid night. Everything about Monday felt just like every other Connecticut game this season, with the Huskies winning each by double digits, including 28-point and 30-point blowouts against Oklahoma and North Carolina, respectively.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz knew exactly what his challenge would be when coming to the Nutmeg State. A day after his team beat Cincinnati to move to 19-1 on the season, and looking at five days of preparation time, the second-year coach offered insight into how he'd play the Huskies, even while making light of just how daunting a task it was going to be.
"We'll try to make sure we concentrate on the ones we need to worry about, which is about all of them," Walz joked morosely late last week. "We're going to have to make someone that might not be a leading scorer for them score. I know what Renee [Montgomery] can do and Maya [Moore] can do and Tina [Charles] can do -- I mean, there's just a list of them. But there comes a point in time where you've got to just say, 'OK, we've got to let someone else try to shoot, compared to letting Maya score or Renee score."
To that end, the Cardinals came out of the gates in the first half with a half-court trap designed as much to slow the Huskies and force them into a half-court offense as much as to force turnovers. After that came a triangle-and-two, with defenders face-guarding Moore and Montgomery while Candyce Bingham, McCoughtry and Keshia Hines covered the rest of the space inside the 3-point arc, essentially conceding outside shots to Kalana Greene, Tiffany Hayes and Lorin Dixon.
Locked in a 15-15 tie after eight minutes, Connecticut had scored all of two points in transition -- those coming on Moore's layup off the opening tip. And Greene, Hayes and Dixon had taken just one fewer shot than Moore and Montgomery.
"You saw early in the game what was happening, when there was a little bit of tentativeness," said Auriemma, who made it the primary focus of his halftime message. "If we're going to be a great team, then we have to have people on the team contribute other than Maya and Renee. If it's just Maya and Renee, then we're not a great team."
Indeed, the problem is that in asking someone other than Moore or Montgomery to beat you, you run the risk of having exactly that happen. And even before the first half ended, defeat began for Louisville. First came Greene slicing along the baseline on her way to six first-half points (1.6 shy of her season average per game). Then the Huskies found Charles flashing into the paint against the triangle on her way to 10 first-half points.
And there was Hayes, who -- filling the role abdicated when fellow freshman and roommate Caroline Doty suffered a season-ending knee injury -- knocked down 3 of 6 shots from behind the arc after hitting just 11 in the first 19 games of her college career.
From a 32-31 lead, Louisville found itself heading to halftime down 45-32.
The real padding came after the break, courtesy of a 16-0 second-half run that included another barrage of 3-pointers from Hayes on her way to a career-best 23 points. But the damage was done when the players Walz challenged to beat his team did just that.
"You've got Kalana Greene and Tiffany Hayes, who I'm making shoot the ball -- I'm leaving them wide open and they're high school All-Americans," Walz said. "I mean, pick your poison. That's the difference. They're rolling out their four or five or six kids that can all score. And when you can do that, you have a chance to win a lot of ballgames. And they have."
Less than two weeks have passed since Connecticut lost Doty, and Auriemma's team has summarily dismissed two top-10 opponents, one on its home court and the other coming off ample preparation time. Against North Carolina, Dixon played one of the best games of her career and exploited a Tar Heels team that invites chaos and likes to keep the game constantly in motion. Against a Louisville team armed with a precise game plan, the Huskies stumbled only briefly before finding the one opening the Cardinals were forced to concede -- then beating their brains in by exploiting it.
And all the while, Moore and Montgomery keep marching toward All-America accolades and a head-to-head race for national player of the year honors.
"I really like where we are; I like the way we're playing," Auriemma said. "I wish we were healthy. I wish we had all of our guys. I wish we had one more guard; I wish we had one more post player, in case there's fouls, in case there's injuries, in case there is anything. But you've gotten here with what you've got, and what we've got is pretty good."
From here, it looks perfect.
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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