It's passion every possession for Moore
Senior breaks Big East scoring mark; relentless effort turns rout into memorable game
HARTFORD, Conn. -- The remarkable thing about Maya Moore is that this wasn't even a stage that demanded something special. This wasn't a conference rival coming to town. It wasn't the senior's final game in the XL Center. It wasn't an opponent giving her extra reason to care, as Syracuse once memorably did to its eternal chagrin in trying to get overly physical with the star, who promptly scored 40 points by way of reply.
For a player who will be judged in no small part by where she leads this team in March and April, national television and a sea of pink on and around the court didn't change the fact that this was just another game against a ranked opponent, one of 11 already played, four of them in the span of the past 15 days with another headed for the state Saturday.
In Moore's world, this was just Monday.
Moore led the way in No. 2 Connecticut's 86-45 victory against No. 12 Oklahoma, scoring a game-high 27 points to become the Big East's all-time leading scorer, and adding seven assists, seven rebounds and six steals. She did most of that damage in the first half of a game Connecticut led by double digits after eight minutes and by 28 points at halftime.
At intermission, she had 18 points, four steals and two turnovers. Oklahoma had 18 points, two steals and 14 turnovers.
"When Maya's playing the way Maya played in that first half, and you don't have somebody good enough to handle Maya Moore, it doesn't matter how hard you're playing or how hard you're competing," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "There's just nothing you can do about it."
But for all the numbers in her favor and all the moments of sublime skill -- the running scoop shot in the lane that gave her the conference scoring mark, the body control to slide between two defenders in the open court and finish -- the play that put an exclamation mark on the evening, if not an entire career, ended with Moore whistled for a travel.
After she ceded Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg two steps as a head start on a loose ball rolling toward the Oklahoma bench, Moore flung herself like Adrian Peterson stretching for the pylon in pursuit of nothing more monumental than possession of the ball in a game her team already led by more than 20 points.
[Maya Moore is] trying to win every possession. There is nobody like her in the country. There is nobody that can score as many ways and do as many things and impact the game in as many ways.” -- Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma
She got to the ball first, leaving Ellenberg momentarily dazed from the collision, but Moore couldn't stop her momentum in time to avoid rolling over and earning the travel.
The reaction might rank among the louder cheers to greet a turnover by the home team.
The crowd fed off Moore's energy. She fed off her energy. And her teammates most definitely fed off the energy. It's one thing to stand and watch the best player in basketball do something with the ball that you can never hope to duplicate. It's quite another to see the same player do something entirely within your grasp, if not your will.
"They look around and Maya makes plays and they go, 'OK, anything can happen; Maya Moore is on my team.' That's what a great leader does; that's what a superstar does," a gracious but visibly frustrated Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "And she does make the plays. She makes the effort plays. She's diving on the floor after loose balls -- they've got three guys diving on the floor after loose balls going out of bounds and not one pink [Oklahoma] jersey is even on that side of the floor. That's the stuff that drives me crazy."
After a loss a little more than a week ago against Connecticut, DePaul coach Doug Bruno, who has coached against Moore for four seasons in the Big East and on her side with Team USA, talked about her "indomitable innards" in trying to explain what separated her from other players with the physical gifts she undeniably also has. There is denying the latter. A person can have innards as indomitable as Churchill, and it's not going to give him or her the range Moore has on her shot, the strength she has in traffic or the speed she has in the open court -- good luck finding a player who takes fewer dribbles per foot of court legally covered than Moore.
But to watch Moore lay out for that loose ball is to know her intangibles aren't merely the creations of people trying to give meaning to a purely physical phenomenon.
"I can't use any other word than the competitiveness that she has," Auriemma said. "She's trying to win every possession."
It's that lead that the rest of a young team is learning to follow, a process that perhaps began in earnest when Moore couldn't get going at Stanford and the supporting cast around her looked unsure of itself in defeat. It's the lead the Huskies followed in pulling out a close victory at Notre Dame, and routing Duke, North Carolina and now Oklahoma, among others since the beginning of the year. And it's the lead they followed Monday, from Kelly Faris bringing the arena to its feet by blocking a 3-pointer during the middle of a run to Lorin Dixon hitting Moore on a backdoor cut to Tiffany Hayes going hard to the basket on her way to 13 points and seven trips to the free throw line.
"When Maya's playing like that, everyone else feels like they can get involved as well," Auriemma said. "She gives them a lot of confidence. They take more chances, or they'll play a little more relaxed when Maya's making shots. And when our defense is really good, and we're not impatient, everybody gets involved. But it all starts with Maya. I mean, obviously. There is nobody like her. There is nobody like her in the country.
"There is nobody that can score as many ways and do as many things and impact the game in as many ways."
We live in a world where it increasingly, quite literally, pays to be cynical. And Moore isn't the divine incarnate on a basketball court. But she is the best player in the country. More importantly, she's the kind of player who can make a Monday memorable, if for no other reason than she plays every game and every possession as if it should be.
"The things that she's done are unbelievable," senior teammate Dixon said. "Just to watch it happen, to be a part of it, a part of history right now -- I played with Maya Moore. It's a great feeling. I mean, I'm in amazement.
"I am in awe of Maya, that's all I can say."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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