Commentary

Defense still UConn's biggest weapon

69th straight win and Charles' records take center stage, but defense dominates

Originally Published: March 1, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On the night Tina Charles became the all-time leading scorer in the history of one of the most dominant programs in college sports, Connecticut showed again that one of its greatest strengths is an ability to keep others from scoring.

The most remarkable thing about the Huskies' defensive effort in Monday night's 76-51 victory at No. 8 Notre Dame was how statistically unremarkable it was. The Fighting Irish scored nearly four points more than an average Connecticut victim and shot 31 percent for the game -- exactly what opponents averaged against the Huskies in the top-ranked team's first 29 wins this season.

But this wasn't an unremarkable effort on a night like this and in a place that has tripped up winning streaks before. On one hand, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary. On the other hand, it helped explain why the Huskies are anything but ordinary.

It came at the end of a regular season in which they've taken every team's best shot and faced the kind of pressure that brought an occasionally raucous sellout crowd to the Joyce Center to cheer against the team so many love to hate, or at least actively root against. It came two days after a physical game against Georgetown and in their third game in the past six days.

[+] EnlargeUCONN Defense
Matt Cashore/US PresswireUConn's defense is limiting opponents to an average of just 47.5 points this season.

It came, in some respects, with one hand tied behind their backs.

A month and a half ago, the Fighting Irish wilted under the Huskies' pressure in a game in Storrs, Conn., turning over the ball 19 times, including 13 in a first half in which they scored just 19 points and trailed by 23 at the break.

With the home crowd at their back early Monday, the Irish didn't wilt this time. They might not have played well for much of the night, but they played hard. They fell behind 6-0 within the first two minutes but rallied to score the next six points. Midway through the opening half, they trailed by just a single point, 16-15. Notre Dame didn't want to let the Huskies run, and the Huskies literally couldn't press the point.

"I knew the game was going to be completely different than it was the very first time we played them," Geno Auriemma said. "I also knew given the state of my team right now, we weren't going to press them the way we did the first game; we just don't have it in us right now. We're a little bit tired, banged up. So I knew we were going to have to win it with our half-court defense. And I have a lot of confidence in our half-court defense."

So instead, they suffocated the Fighting Irish in confined spaces, as Muffet McGraw said, turning a good passing team into a bad dribbling team. Devereaux Peters and Becca Bruszewski kept the Irish in it inside, but that was the extent of the offense.

Auriemma's confidence wasn't necessarily always there. Asked about completing a second consecutive regular season, he talked about the unknowns that existed on the eve of the season. Most notably, that was true of the depth chart at point guard, where one or more out of a group that included Caroline Doty, Tiffany Hayes and Lorin Dixon had to take Renee Montgomery's spot, if not actually replace the All-American's production and leadership. But if Montgomery's contributions were most easily measured on the offensive end, where she accounted for 16.5 points and 5.1 assists last season, the unknowns without her extended to the defensive end.

"Yeah, Renee was a really, really good defender," Auriemma recounted of where things stood in the fall. "Tiffany when she wants to be. Caroline -- not at all last year. Maya …"

Here he paused, momentarily pained by more than the headache that accompanied the win, and offered a familiar sarcastic sigh at the expense of the star's defense.

He continued, "You know, there were a lot of variables going in and I thought, 'This is going to be hard; we're going to have to outscore people.'"

And so it was, assuming by "outscore people" you mean score at least 50 points. For all the debate about where this team ranks in program history, it has a chance to do at least one thing that not even the undefeated 2001-02 team did: limit opponents to an average of 49 or fewer points per game for an entire season. If not for a 3-pointer from Skylar Diggins in the closing seconds Monday, they would have furthered the cause yet again.

At one point late in the second half, Diggins, Ashley Barlow, Lindsay Schrader and Melissa Lechlitner were a combined 1-for-23 from the floor. That quartet finished with 18 points and 28 missed field goals.

"I've been pleasantly surprised, as surprised as anybody," Auriemma said. "Maybe because I've warned them all this time. And I show them in drills -- they can't guard anybody. Really, they can't. Like, man-to-man? They can't guard anybody. And they have to work really, really hard at it, and they have to help each other.

"And maybe because they know that -- that they're not great individual defenders -- that's been the difference."

Opposing coaches aren't reluctant to compliment Connecticut's defense; McGraw did so after Monday's game. But when the microphones are off they'll talk about exactly how good it is, how it never takes a possession off and how that's the part of perfection that people tend to overlook in dwelling on the other end of the lopsided scores. And you get the feeling Auriemma knows exactly what he has, not that he could resist one final jab at his own charges in explaining the success.

"Plus, we don't screw around last year like we did with playing a lot of different defenses," Auriemma said. "We play one defense and that's it. Because with these guys, the minute you change, it's an open 3 or a layup and a foul. So it's helped me that we can only play one defense. We try a couple of others, but we're faking it.  Just like we're pretending, then we get right back to the only defense that we're good at."

With that defense, they're two wins away from being better at uninterrupted winning than any team in the history women's basketball.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. 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.