UConn Huskies pull out tough win
Auriemma says Irish outplayed Huskies, but UConn posts 79-76 road victory
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It took longer than usual for many fans to reach Notre Dame's Purcel Pavilion on Saturday, their progress slowed by more than a foot of snow that fell on the area overnight and through the morning. Inside, it took more minutes than has been the norm in recent seasons for Connecticut to put away its Big East rival. March and April will ensure the former forecast becomes a more and more remote possibility. The latter condition might linger through spring.
Trailing by as many as seven points in the first half and down five points with fewer than four minutes to play, No. 2 Connecticut rallied for a 79-76 victory against No. 12 Notre Dame. And while the team's second win in a row since losing at Stanford was notable in how little it resembled most of the games in the now-completed 90-game winning streak, it was more notable in what it foretells about the kind of games the Huskies must win to keep alive their streak of championships.
Connecticut is very good, as you might have gathered. Notre Dame is also rather good, blessed with its own star in Skylar Diggins and a talented cast alongside her. With most of a sellout crowd in their seats undeterred by the snow outside, that simple math added up to a game settled by nothing more definitive after 40 minutes than a pair of possessions in the final 60 seconds, first a layup by Connecticut's Kelly Faris and then a missed jumper by Diggins.
Like Baylor and Stanford before it, Notre Dame proved Connecticut is no longer invincible against even good teams, particularly big, agile teams. In two of those three instances, the Huskies also proved vincible can still be tough to beat.
"I just think sometimes it gets lost that this isn't the team that won 78 in a row," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "This is a team that's won 14 games. So they took a big step forward today by winning a game on the road where I think Notre Dame, I would bet you, outplayed us in just about every category -- more points in the paint, more points in transition, more bench points, more offensive rebounds. Notre Dame outplayed us in every area today, and the last four minutes of the game, we won the game. That's kind of how basketball goes sometimes."
Maya Moore led the way for Connecticut with 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting, her fifth performance of at least 30 points this season. But it wasn't a fluke that with Notre Dame holding a one-point lead and locked onto Moore with 14 seconds to play, Faris scored the game's final field goal off an assist from Bria Hartley. Playing in her home state for the second time as a collegian, Faris finished with a career-best 20 points, in addition to six rebounds, five assists and two steals. She hit all 10 of her free throw attempts and two of her three 3-point attempts in a performance that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw seemed nonetheless dubious the sophomore could repeat.
"She came in shooting 16 percent from the 3-point line, so that wasn't on the scouting report for us to go out and guard her there," McGraw said. "And she's a 65 percent free throw shooter. And so she played better than her average today."
To be fair to McGraw, in addition to those numbers this season (actually 22 percent from the 3-point line and 67 percent from the free throw line entering the game), Faris also attempted a grand total of three shots in 26 minutes across three games against the Fighting Irish last season. But Saturday's performance was also her second career high in the past three games, the first coming with 19 points to keep the Huskies in the game they eventually lost at Stanford. Just as a national television audience learned a lot about how much potential McGraw's team has, it learned plenty about how much potential Faris possesses.
"I get in trouble from my other coaches because they think I'm too easy on Kelly Faris because I like her so much," Auriemma said. "But I think I went on record as saying that probably the biggest key to what's going to happen with this team down the road is going to be how Kelly plays. And I don't mean whether she plays hard or competes or whatever.
"She's our best defender, and she's become one of our best rebounders and she's an excellent free throw shooter, for the most part. We had her handling the ball a lot today, and she was guarding the other team's best player. And she knocked down 3s with a lot of confidence. That's the Kelly that I know. Sometimes she tries to do too much, and sometimes she doesn't want to do enough [offensively], but when she's in a groove like she was today? That kid is really, really, really good. I wouldn't trade her for anybody in the league. I really wouldn't."
Overshadowed though it was in November and December by their connection to the feats of the past two teams, this season's Huskies remain very much a work in progress. They entered the season as Moore, Tiffany Hayes and a bunch of question marks, and that punctuation has changed only a little. After Moore and Hayes, they rely primarily for points on Faris, Hartley, Stefanie Dolson and Samarie Walker -- three freshmen and a sophomore who averaged 4.1 points per game last season. But in less than two full months, those players have already been on the court for more meaningful possessions in the final minutes of games than any Huskies had the past two or three seasons. Against Baylor, Hartley stepped up with big second-half shots. Against Stanford, Faris did all she could to keep the game close. And Saturday, both Faris and Dolson, who came up with a big block and two free throws in the closing minutes, came up big.
That someone needed to come up big for the Huskies in the final minutes says something about how well the Fighting Irish played in the kind of big game that befuddled them in recent seasons. From start to finish, Notre Dame played like a team convinced not so much that it could win but that it should win. Maybe it happened and the lens of hindsight just makes it easy to forget, but it's difficult to envision Brittany Mallory, as one example, leaping into Moore's path as the latter gathered in a long pass and giving the All-American not even an inch to begin a move to the basket -- aggression surely born of a confidence in not just herself but the players behind her.
"We came out really ready," McGraw said. "We played hard, which we've done all year but haven't always done in this particular game. On a big stage, national TV, you wonder how the freshmen are going to react, how everybody is going to react? I think you look back and you have to feel good about the effort that we played with and know that we can compete with that team and hope that carries over, in a good way, for the rest of the season."
In addition to Diggins, there was Natalie Novosel, whose acrobatic shot in the lane to give Notre Dame a 76-75 lead with 30 seconds to play looked destined to be the game's lasting highlight. Notre Dame outplayed the Huskies for much of the day in large part thanks to two players missing from previous contests for different reasons. Freshman Natalie Achonwa and redshirt junior Devereaux Peters combined for 11 offensive rebounds, four assists and four blocks and exposed a Connecticut interior that wasn't as agile with Dolson, as big with Walker or as deep as Notre Dame. Peters, in particular, looked nothing like a player plagued by three knee surgeries in seasons past and everything like a game-changing athletic post.
"They do a great job of using their strengths," Moore said. "Getting in the lane, dishing off to their posts was something that really hurt us. And they play, I think, with some more confidence this year."
Confident teams won't be in short supply as Connecticut progresses through a schedule that still includes road trips to St. John's, North Carolina and West Virginia, as well as home games against Duke, DePaul, Oklahoma and these Fighting Irish. It's entirely possible the Huskies will fall again at some point during that stretch. It's also possible that with Moore and Hayes surrounded by young talents growing in confidence and finding their own identity, that the Huskies will win some of those games comfortably and make the necessary plays to win the others late.
It's not going to be easy to beat Connecticut. As Notre Dame proved, it's also not going to be easy for Connecticut to win the rest of them. And if Saturday is any indication, that's going to make it a lot of fun to watch.
"When I got hired, my job wasn't to make sure that we win 90 in a row and be up 17 with a minute left and go home and have a glass of wine," Auriemma said. "That's not in my job description."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.