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Bitter end leaves bad taste for Huskies

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Noisy as the packed Hartford Civic Center was, Duke guard Jessica Foley's voice still came through loud and clear. At least loud enough for teammate Lindsey Harding to hear.

"I was thinking, 'Attack the basket,' and then I heard Jessica screaming for it," Harding said. "She's going, 'BALL! BALL!' So I passed it right to her, and she always shoots so confidently.

"Then I see it go through the bottom of the net, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God, we won.' "

Yes, the No. 4 Blue Devils beat top-ranked Connecticut 68-67 on a last-second 3-pointer by Foley. Yes, Duke rallied from being down by as much as 20 in the first half, 18 in the second half and by 14 with less than four minutes to play.

Yes, Duke won despite scoring a pitiful 18 points on 21.9 percent shooting in the first half -- and despite star Alana Beard scoring only one point before the break. For the game, she and fellow senior Iciss Tillis combined to shoot just 31 percent (12-for-39) from the field.

And yes, Duke won even though UConn star Diana Taurasi hit what certainly looked like the game-winner with 4.7 seconds left.

If you were rubbing your eyes and shaking your head after this one, you weren't alone. So was almost everyone here, except the Blue Devils, who were busy piling on Foley.

"I saw a barrage coming at me; I was a little worried," the Aussie said, chuckling.

Beard was first to pile on, then wandered a few feet away and just fell on the floor, grinning. She was exhausted, elated, relieved, stunned. Later she told her teammates in the locker room, "This is the best game I've been in, by far."

Well, the last few minutes, anyway. Most of the game was UConn-dominated. In fact, if you were watching on TV and turned it off early, you probably think this is some kind of premature April Fool's joke. Duke won? Oh, surrrrrrrrre ...

But the Blue Devils did, in what was one of the more amazing turnarounds you're likely to see in any sport, any time.

This is the kind of game that just doesn't happen in real life. It happens in people's imaginations. You know, their team is down by double-digits late, and they kid themselves with, "OK, if we just score on our next nine possessions and they don't score at all, we'll be right back in it ..."

It's just a fantasy. Never happens. Except, Saturday it did.

"I'm a little surprised," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "I'm very proud of my team. We have so much to work on; we were really outplayed for 35 minutes, and were totally dominated for the first half.

"I'm proud we were able to come back. [It's] a great learning game for both [teams]. They know they had us on the ropes, and they let us back in."

And that, folks, is the real stunner. Under coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies had never before lost a game in which they held a 20-point lead. UConn is the team that comes back on other teams the rare times it needs to ... but then slams the door in any opponent's face trying to return the favor.

The Huskies typically survive even the most furious rally. Duke was down by a million last February at Cameron Indoor Stadium, cut it as close as six, but still lost by 12.

Then Purdue was buried but came back to life against the Huskies in the NCAA Elite Eight. The Boilers also got to within six, then lost by nine. And, of course, in the Final Four, it was the Huskies who had to put on their rally caps against Texas -- and won by two.

But against Duke, the supposedly simple became hard when the Blue Devils put on their press late. Goestenkors knew they couldn't press UConn the entire game, they had to do it in spurts.

In the last three minutes, UConn had seven turnovers. The Huskies often couldn't even get the ball past halfcourt.

"It was just one of those unexplainable things, really," Auriemma said. "Other than a total breakdown by us, an inability to handle the ball, and handle the craziness of the last five or six minutes. It was, like, stupid things. I can't even talk about some of the sequences without laughing.

"Players who up to this point were pretty good decision-makers, all of sudden, whatever the worst decision they could make in that particular instance was, they made it. So I guess we're human, huh?"

True. We're so accustomed to UConn getting it done no matter what, that this was a shock. Credit goes to the Blue Devils; their energy was fantastic, and they're at their best when they follow Beard's lead as a defensive dynamo.

But some of the turnovers were the Huskies not executing.

"I'm surprised we gave the game away like that," said Taurasi, who had three of those final seven turnovers. "It's not in our nature ... we usually put the clamps down. More than anything, it was my fault, I didn't get the team together."

Taurasi was being pretty hard on herself; how many times has she made the play to win a game in her career? Seems like a hundred. And how many pounds is the load she has carried last season and this one? Seems like 800.

But Saturday ...

"I think Diana was worn out," Auriemma said. "She did a pretty good job on Alana Beard for most of the game, and then still had to come down and run the offense."

UConn had won 36 games in a row in the Hartford Civic Center; it hadn't lost in its home-away-from-home since 1986, Auriemma's first year.

The Huskies had won 69 consecutive "home" games -- between the HCC and Gampel Pavilion -- with the last loss coming to Tennessee 72-71 in Storrs in 2000.

So if you are a Duke fan -- or just someone tired of seeing UConn win -- you were watching this game saying, "Here we go again."

The Blue Devils didn't seem to take a good shot the entire first half. UConn had them expertly scouted, and they were too often caught standing still.

"They just did a great job; they switched on some screens, and Alana was double- or triple-teamed when she got the ball," Goestenkors said.

"They were sagging off of (Monique Currie), daring her to take the outside shot. They're the best at playing personnel of any team we've ever faced."

The Blue Devils went in at halftime down 35-18, and even though they didn't talk about "last year" ...

"We probably all felt it," Goestenkors acknowledged. "It was like déja vu."

Duke trailed 41-20 at halftime last year. But there was something a little different this time. Said Harding, "We had more of a fight to us."

Beard made nine of 17 shots in the second half, including a ridiculous reverse layup in which she twisted like Gumby and put billiards-like spin on the ball. She hit just one 3-pointer, but it was a monster: It brought Duke to within 65-63 with a little less than a minute left.

Then Tillis, who struggled mightily from the field most of the game, got a steal and fed Beard for the ensuing basket that tied the score.

Duke forced yet another turnover; UConn had 19 in all. But Currie, who sat out last season with a torn ACL, missed a shot, and UConn had the ball back with 20 seconds left. It was Taurasi time.

And she came through. But the Blue Devils had one last trip up the court. Harding dished to Foley and ...

"I felt like I was wide-open, then Ann Strother was coming straight for my face," Foley said. "I set up for the shot well, but it didn't feel that good off my hand. It was a pretty lucky shot, really."

But at that point, Duke already had manufactured enough good fortune on its own that maybe "luck" owed the Blue Devils one.

"They made some huge plays at the end, and huge shots," Auriemma said. "We helped them, but they still had to make the plays they made."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.