The award for best supporting cast ...
Charles, Moore lead way but get plenty of help from rest of roster to beat Irish
STORRS, Conn. -- A debate is brewing as to which of Connecticut's signature stars, Maya Moore or Tina Charles, most deserves national player of the year honors. As Saturday night proved yet again, there is no such debate as to which team deserves top marks.
"They are just the best team in the country," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw affirmed after the top-ranked Huskies blitzed her third-ranked Fighting Irish 70-46, her words echoes of similar sentiments expressed by Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell.
That has a great deal to do with the fact that Moore and Charles play alongside each other.
"We don't have the seven best players in America; we have the two best players in America," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said before last week's rout of North Carolina.
And indeed, the loudest roar of an otherwise perfunctory second half came when Moore and Charles checked out of the game for the final time with a little less than three minutes to play. They were the ones who got the lion's share of attention on the day ESPN's "College GameDay" first set up shop for a women's basketball game. And they combined for 43 points and 24 rebounds.
But if the Huskies don't have the seven best players, they do have seven, eight or nine players who play better together than any other collection of talent in the nation. And it's those other players, the so-called role players, who have a lot to say about this team's place in history.
Connecticut's first basket didn't come from either of its stars. After Moore missed a shot from the 3-point line and Charles grabbed the offensive rebound, Kalana Greene drove baseline, taking the ball assertively to the basket and dropping in a high shot off the glass over a late-arriving defender. Barely more than a minute later, after Notre Dame tied the score by doing what almost no team has been able to do all season -- turn the Huskies over with backcourt pressure -- Greene leaked out in transition, beat the Fighting Irish through the lane and finished again.
"The first five minutes of the game, before that TV timeout, is the most important," Greene explained. "Because you want to be the team -- you want to be the aggressor; you want to be the team that sets the tone. We knew these guys had trouble guarding us off the dribble, and we knew they were going to play a zone all day."
Moore and Charles scored 19 of Connecticut's next 22 points en route to a 26-6 lead before the game was even 10 minutes old, but even if largely symbolic, Greene's opening flurry showed the offense has more than two options. On any given night, it might be Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes launching 3-pointers or Hayes and Greene taking people off the dribble.
When Duke hosts Connecticut on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), the Blue Devils might be the best defensive team to face the Huskies this season, all the more so with a presumably boisterous crowd in the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils entered the weekend ranked No. 16 in the nation in field goal defense; Stanford, North Carolina and Notre Dame all entered the weekend ranked outside the top 30 (and in Notre Dame's case, outside the top 100). But trying to contend with arguably the two best offensive players in the game, one a dominant post presence and the other an all-court threat, can't come at the expense of attention elsewhere.
Notre Dame knew that, respected the width and depth of Connecticut's offense. It didn't help.
"We tried to guard everybody," McGraw said. "I thought we were trying to get out on the shooters. I thought Greene did a nice job attacking the basket. She got us on the baseline quite a few times, right to the rim. And we were trying to actually guard her for that drive, so we didn't do a very good job on her. We really weren't keying -- Charles was a big concern, [and] when she got it, we were going to try to double, but really, everybody else we were kind of straight up on."
And the scary part is the offensive end is where Greene, Hayes, Doty and Lorin Dixon are least important. The Huskies didn't need more than 27 points out of the supporting cast against Notre Dame precisely because that supporting cast was part of the collective starring role the team's defense played. It was Hayes moving her feet and drawing a pair of charges during the familiar first-half run, Greene making a steal to ignite the transition game or Dixon, all 5-foot-4 of her, blocking a Skylar Diggins shot to send the crowd into a frenzy.
That doesn't mean everyone gets a pat on the back all the time. Hayes finished with eight assists against just two turnovers and added three steals and two blocks. But twice in the second half, once after a 3-pointer with plenty of space between her and the men's 3-point line and once after an ill-advised attempt to draw a charge, Auriemma wasted no time sending Dixon to the scorer's table. Greene still hears earfuls on a regular basis. Even Kelly Faris, who Auriemma said before the season would never have a bad game, got a long, if apparently encouraging, one-on-one chat with the coach upon coming out after a few of her limited minutes.
If they aren't the best players in the nation, just how good is the group that supports the two stars?
"That's what I want to find out in the next month," Auriemma said. "I want to find out, How good is Tiffany Hayes? I know she's good at falling down, so now I want to find out how good she is.
"I want to find out, How good is Lorin Dixon? I know she can do some things, but let's find out. Like can she sustain playing like -- she played great tonight. Can she keep doing that every single practice, every single day? How good is Kaili [McLaren]? Is it the Kaili of the first half or the Kaili of the second half? Where is Kelly Faris? We need more from her right now; she's kind of hit that freshman wall, it looks like."
There are any number of programs in major conferences that would love to install any of Greene, Hayes or Doty as the centerpiece of their team. And if they aren't the best players at Connecticut, they are every bit as much a part of what makes these Huskies better than any other in the nation right now. And every bit a part of what makes these Huskies potentially better than any team ever.
"I don't think any of those guys are going to be mentioned on any postseason All-America teams," Auriemma said of the supporting cast with a touch of trademark sarcasm. "I don't know that any of them are going to make first-team All-Big East. They just have to be really good, that's all. Like they were for the most part tonight. When you've got Tina and Maya, all you have to do is be good. They'll take care of being really good; you just have to be good."
They are that and more. As long as that's true, there is no end in sight for Connecticut's reign.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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