UConn's first-half play as good as it gets
STORRS, Conn. -- Settling into her defensive crouch after a particularly impressive fast break in the first half, Connecticut guard Caroline Doty couldn't keep the grin off her face. Waiting for a television timeout to end in the second half, Huskies associate coach Chris Dailey smiled and waved to a face in the stands. In fact, aside from the visiting players and coaches and a small cluster of fans clad in Carolina blue behind their team's bench, Gampel Pavilion was an almost unbroken sea of smiles for most of Saturday's supposed showdown with No. 7 North Carolina.
Sports are supposed to be tension and drama. But if you're on the edge of your seat late in a Connecticut game, it's only because you're making a run at beating traffic out of the parking lot.
"They just showed my young team there's another level we haven't reached yet," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said of the Huskies after her team dropped an 88-47 decision.
Connecticut beat North Carolina by 41 points. In its last six losses prior to Saturday, a streak dating back to Jan. 22 of last year, the Tar Heels lost by a combined 45 points. The Huskies do this against Iona. They do this against Holy Cross. But they also do it against North Carolina.
"You want a nail-biter?" Geno Auriemma jokingly asked a student section struck momentarily passive during a postgame gift giveaway. "Go see Providence play."
The rest of us worry about drama. We search for some team that might be able to challenge the Huskies by the time the season reaches the Final Four -- maybe Stanford in a rematch on a neutral court, or Baylor if the Lady Bears defend better than they did against Oklahoma State on Saturday. But the truth is the only opponents the Huskies worry about are injuries and themselves. One they can't control, as evidenced by the brief scare sophomore Tiffany Hayes provided in leaving Thursday's game against Cincinnati with a sprained ankle before returning to score 15 points in Saturday's game.
The other opponent is the one that haunts them like their own white whale.
"We thought that we didn't play as well as we could have played," Kalana Greene said in all seriousness. "We're constantly wanting to get better. And I think today, we played a good game, but at the same time, we could point out a million things that we wish we had an opportunity to do it again so we could do it right and do it better."
Over 40 minutes of basketball, she might be right. The second half was as sloppy as anyone outside the Connecticut locker room might expect from a game in which any excitement had been extinguished by halftime. But for much of the first half, including a 49-14 run that turned a 10-7 deficit into a 56-24 lead at intermission, there weren't a million things Greene and teammates could have done better. There might not have been three things they could have done better.
"What I liked about it is how we forced ourselves onto them," Auriemma said. "Like every time we touched the ball, we were attacking them from all sides. They had no idea where the next shot was coming from. We're throwing it inside, we're driving it at the basket, we're shooting a jump shot, we're getting a second shot. It was just -- we never let up. We just saw what was available to us and we took it. Over and over and over again."
Tina Charles outscored the Tar Heels by herself in the half, finishing the first period with 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting and 11 rebounds, including six offensive boards.
Somebody sent me a pretty good Lombardi quote recently. It said, 'Perfection is unattainable, but if you chase perfection you'll catch excellence.' What I've been trying to teach my players all along is that's the fun part -- knowing that you can't get to that and you're going as hard as you can to get there anyway.” -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma
"Anything you would want or expect from a post player, Tina Charles did that tonight," Maya Moore said. "When we have performances like that from her, we feel unstoppable."
The first half wasn't just the best basketball Connecticut played; it might have been the best basketball it can play. The Huskies shot 60 percent from the field, grabbed 31 rebounds -- including 10 offensive rebounds on just 17 misses -- and forced 14 turnovers. Maybe they could have hit a 3-pointer or shot better from the free throw line. Maybe a few scenes in "The Godfather" could have been lit better.
"Today we tried to play a perfect game of basketball," Auriemma said of the goal the Huskies set every time they step on the court. "Make every pass correctly, the right pass at the right time, every cut, make sure we rotate on defense -- make sure we do this, this and this. So we tried to do that, and for 20 minutes, we came pretty damn close.
"So I'm going to go home and say, 'You know what? Damn, that was pretty good.'"
Not that could you tell it from his countenance during the game. Amongst the sea of smiling faces, he was the one often wearing the look of sarcastic perplexity in response to some perceived sin on the court. Even as Charles steamrolled the Tar Heels in the first half, he could be heard yelling, "Come on, Tina, pay attention," when a three-second call wiped out a 3-pointer from Hayes, or barking "Tina Charles, are you kidding me?" when a rebound hit the floor in front of her.
After the game, Auriemma tried to explain his outlook with a golf analogy. Would he be happy, he mused hypothetically, if he won a bet by shooting 98 to his playing partner's 100? Tellingly, he seemed genuinely unable to accept that a large part of the population would indeed.It's the irony of success that those who achieve it are often unable to enjoy it. Even as the wins pile up, without interruption now for 54 consecutive games, they aren't the results he wants.
"Monday we start the whole process over again; Monday, we start the chase -- I call it the chase," Auriemma said. "Somebody sent me a pretty good Lombardi quote recently. It said, 'Perfection is unattainable, but if you chase perfection you'll catch excellence.'
"So the chase starts, and some people just get tired of the chase. Some don't even start the chase. Some start it, realize they can't catch it and they just stop. What I've been trying to teach my players all along is that's the fun part -- knowing that you can't get to that and you're going as hard as you can to get there anyway."
Auriemma wants perfection in a manner more comprehensive than wins and losses. He doesn't want to beat an opponent; he wants to beat the game. And as Charles, Moore and the rest of the Huskies showed Saturday, he has a team that thrives on chasing just that goal.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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