Big East final loss won't hurt Huskies at all
Geno Auriemma was antsy.
With seven hours to go until Tuesday night's Big East final tipped off, something didn't feel right.
"I just don't know if we can win 22 straight games," Auriemma said at the Huskies' shootaround.
UConn's coach was referring to the 15-game winning streak the Huskies had put together heading into the championship game, then adding what would be win No. 16 if UConn brought home the Big East tournament crown -- and the six straight victories it takes to clinch the national championship.
Turns out, Auriemma was right. The second-ranked Huskies will head into the NCAA Tournament on a one-game losing streak, falling 55-47 to No. 19 Rutgers on Tuesday at Hartford Civic Center.
Good news for UConn fans, however, is that Tuesday's loss won't hurt the Huskies at all. Most experts agree that UConn had already clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the Huskies certainly didn't help their argument as to why they shouldn't be sent to the Fresno Regional -- which, considering that the other potential No. 1 seeds (Duke, North Carolina and Tennessee) are from the East Coast, almost seems like a punishment.
But the loss actually will take some pressure off of UConn, which hadn't lost since stumbling at North Carolina 82-76 on Jan. 15. And while Rutgers' defense perhaps exposed some potential UConn weaknesses, the defeat also showed the Huskies exactly what they need to work on and refine between now and the NCAA Tournament's first-round games on March 17-18.
For one thing, UConn rookie Tina Charles must be a factor inside and establish herself in the paint. Once the NCAA Tournament arrives, you can't rely on perimeter scoring or the fast break, because at that level, teams are going to look to take away the transition game. But if you establish the inside, it opens up the outside.
On Tuesday, Connecticut never really got up the floor like we've seen it do this season, whether on the dribble or via a rebound and long outlet pass. Rutgers took away those strengths, took away UConn's slashing and easy baskets, and forced the Huskies to play half-court basketball. I was really surprised that they started settling for jump shots. And the real killer stat was the fact that UConn, a team averaging almost 18 free throws a game, went to the foul line just four times.
It's a tired cliche, but it's not inaccurate to say that it can be difficult to beat a team three times in one season, especially when the second and third games in the series were only eight days apart. And after Rutgers lost that Feb. 26 matchup in Piscataway, N.J., by 26 points, you had to expect the Scarlet Knights to come to play Tuesday.
Give Rutgers its due. Coach C. Vivian Stringer put together a great game plan and earned an impressive win with tremendous defense, hustle and pride. The Scarlet Knights had a lot to prove, probably entering Tuesday's Big East final as a No. 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, they might jump to a three seed.
As for UConn, the Fresno Regional is a very real possibility, but I've had the Huskies headed to the Dallas Regional as a No. 1 seed all along. We'll find out come Selection Monday.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
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