UConn plays near-perfect game
Previously unbeaten and third-ranked Duke no match for No. 2 Huskies
STORRS, Conn. -- Duke's flight home to North Carolina left as quickly as the team could make its way to the plane after Monday's game at Connecticut, all the better to beat the latest round of inclement weather headed toward New England. But while that ground around Gampel Pavilion not still buried under previous storms remained dry in the hours after the game, the visiting team's departure turned out to be a few hours too late to beat the storm.
By the time No. 3 Duke dug out from the deluge, No. 2 Connecticut was in possession of an 87-51 win, its largest margin of victory against a ranked team this season.
Duke was bigger, deeper and, of course, unbeaten. And the Blue Devils lived up to their physical billing, knocking Tiffany Hayes to the floor with a resounding thud at one point and maintaining defensive contact with Maya Moore for considerably more than the five yards an NFL official would have allowed.
There was just one shortcoming in the blueprint for success. For all the X's and O's, Connecticut was the better basketball team on this night.
"When the game starts, the real basketball players start to come out, and they come out at game time," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I'm lucky. Our starting five is a competitive bunch. They are really competitive."
In their second substantive test since freshman Samarie Walker left the team, leaving Auriemma with a rotation little bigger than that of a Major League Baseball manager, Connecticut again showed that the five it can put on the court at the start of a game can play both ends of the court as well as any quintet in the country. Just as the Huskies did on the road at North Carolina two weeks ago on national television.
In Chapel Hill, it was an 8-0 run to start the game and a 10-0 run that turned a comfortable halftime lead into a blowout. In Storrs on Monday, it was a 29-2 run to start the game that left even Auriemma in awe and left the Blue Devils on the ropes.
"Connecticut came out punching, and we just completely stepped back or took the punches," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
Yes, the Huskies got 29 points from Moore and aren't going anywhere in April without her. They also got 20 points and four assists from Hayes, 12 rebounds from Stefanie Dolson and four 3-pointers from Kelly Faris on her way to 14 points -- one more than Jasmine Thomas, the All-American she spent much of the evening guarding.
"Everyone talks about the All-Americans, but they play a certain way," McCallie said of the Huskies' system. "They get assists and they play as a team and they rebound. And that's the consistent piece for them, year in and year out."
That those individual pieces this season essentially number just six is another issue. Connecticut's top six players went almost the distance against Duke, Heather Buck breaking the group's stranglehold on minutes when she checked in with just more than nine minutes to play and the Huskies leading by 29 points. Without Walker and without Caroline Doty, long ago lost for the season with a knee injury, those six players, including four guards, will carry the load.
Connecticut came out punching, and we just completely stepped back or took the punches.” -- Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie
As a result, the Huskies get prickly about the one "F-word" that you won't hear coming out of anyone's mouth in Storrs, including the coach's famously colorful one, unless in response to a question: fatigue. If fatigue really wasn't an issue, coaches wouldn't play seven, eight or nine players regular minutes when afforded the luxury of such depth. But if Connecticut continues to deny the existence of the phenomenon, perhaps what it really means is it can't worry about what it can't change.
"We just play," Moore said. "You don't get tired. We don't talk about that at Connecticut. There's plenty of reasons or opportunities where you could say, 'I'm tired,' but you find a way to get over it. You find a way every day in practice. We have to, obviously, do certain things to make sure that we are able to compete at the highest level we can -- taking care of our bodies, getting a lot of rest, doing all the little things that we probably have to do more so than any other year since I've been here."
In the process, the Huskies exposed the Blue Devils as a team with a wealth of talent on defense and stll too few proven answers on offense. Duke's pressure is a legitimate championship-caliber weapon, and at times flustered a Connecticut team that turned the ball over 20 times, its first game of at least 20 turnovers since a nailbiter at Notre Dame on Jan. 8. But the Blue Devils converted those turnovers into just 14 points, and 19 offensive rebounds into just 12 second-chance points. Without those tools that, to put it bluntly, amount to two of its three best offensive plays -- the third being give the ball to Jasmine Thomas and let her go -- Duke floundered on offense.
Play this game in Cameron Indoor Stadium or a neural court in the NCAA tournament, and perhaps Duke finds itself in a position to play meaningful minutes late, as it did in last season's regional final against Baylor or in victories this season against Final Four contenders Texas A&M and Xavier. The Blue Devils are not 36 points worse than the Huskies on any sort of absolute scale. They are a team entirely capable of playing in the Final Four in Indianapolis.
But on Monday night they got a lesson in what happens when a team plays in near-perfect harmony on both ends of the court. And until they change the rules and let teams play six or seven at a time, Connecticut still has the pieces to do that better than anyone on a given night.
"What happens when you're on the road and you start missing shots, you've got to hope the other team misses shots," Auriemma said of the first-half run. "And when they were missing and we were scoring, and they were missing and we were scoring, you get caught in that car wash thing and you have no idea which way is out."
In other words, things have a tendency to snowball.
Before the first half was even over, the Connecticut student section began directing the inevitable "Over-Rated" chant at the Blue Devils' bench. The 20 teams that preceded Connecticut on Duke's schedule might beg to differ. But overmatched? On this night, at least, Duke was unprepared for winter in Connecticut.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.