Unheralded Greene leads Huskies
If you just looked at the score of UConn's 72nd consecutive victory -- 60-32 over West Virginia for the Big East tourney title on Tuesday -- you might think, "And the beatdowns go on." But
There were things about this win that could cause the UConn faithful to lose just a little sleep during their second consecutive dream season.
In particular, it was an off night from the field for the "Cagney and Lacey" of the Huskies, superstars Maya Moore and Tina Charles. They were a combined 9-of-31 from the field, and coach Geno Auriemma might have wisecracked that offensively, they were looking a bit more like "Lucy and Ethel" in this game.
However, defensively, they were still as powerful as "Xena and Gabrielle" (and I promise that will be my last famous female TV duo reference unless I can somehow work in "Laverne and Shirley").
What really stood out for UConn on Tuesday was the number "32."
That's how many points the Huskies allowed the Mountaineers, and it's also the jersey number of senior Kalana Greene. Those were the two things that made all the difference for the Huskies: Their ability to lock down West Virginia (which shot just 24.1 percent from the field) and the energetic play of Greene.
With a little more than 15 minutes left in the game, West Virginia trailed by just five points, 33-28. You could sense just a little apprehension emanating from the crowd at the XL Center, especially with the two stars' shooting woes.
But then the Huskies didn't just slam the door on the Mountaineers' offense, they welded it shut. West Virginia scored only four more points the rest of the game.
"We just wanted to keep playing defense," Greene said. "Our defense was pretty good the entire game. We got key stops and a lot of rebounds. And Tina started hitting big shots at the end. People made plays when we needed to make them."
As for Greene, she scored a game-high 15 points (7-of-8 from the field) and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds (Tiffany Hayes also scored 15 for UConn). Greene was named the Most Outstanding Performer of the Big East tournament, a nice honor for a player who is competing at probably the only program in the country where she would be so overshadowed.
"Kalana is kind of like our safety net," Moore said. "She sometimes doesn't get the credit she deserves, and it's great she's being recognized for all of the intangibles she brings to our team."
Of course, on Tuesday, Greene brought plenty to the floor that was very tangible. But with what's obvious and less obvious about Greene's contributions, the reality is that UConn would not be at this level without her.
Greene injured her ACL early in the 2007-08 season, so she wasn't playing in the losses that season to Rutgers and Stanford. Asked how difficult it was to watch that, Greene just shrugs.
"The good thing is that we came back the next year more hungry," she said of last season's perfect record. "I got hurt, and I couldn't do anything about that. But we regrouped and came back to win the national championship."
And now the Huskies are six victories away from again cutting down the nets. They have plenty of time to recuperate, since the NCAA tournament doesn't start until March 20. (And if UConn is sent for the early rounds to Pittsburgh or Norfolk, Va., the Huskies won't play until March 21.)
With depth being perhaps the only question mark the Huskies have faced this season, the chance to be well-rested for the NCAA tournament is a bonus. Caroline Doty took a knock to the head in the semifinals; she still played Tuesday but missed her three shots from the field, scoring one point on a free throw.
Charles (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Moore (10 and seven) both took hits early in the final, and Moore, especially, looked like she could use just a little break. Now, the Huskies have that opportunity as they prepare to defend their NCAA title.
Not that they won't be pushed hard in practice, of course. But there's no question one of the things Auriemma and his staff have perfected is how to keep the players sharp and on their toes without overworking them.
"I'm not worried," Moore said of her struggles from the field in the final. "This is a tough part of the year in the Big East tournament, playing the best teams in the Big East back-to-back-to-back. It's not necessarily going to be easy. It's going to be hard. We can take away a lot of good things from this tournament."
Like last season, the Huskies (33-0) will enter the NCAA tournament without a loss. Which might suggest they don't need to peak so much as just maintain their level of play.
However, Auriemma doesn't believe that things just stay the same; his philosophy is they either get better or worse. So like an expert crew chief who has the best car in a race, Auriemma knows there's still a need for fine-tuning.
"Now the intensity level and that ratchet-up has to be for short bursts," he said. "In some ways, this time of the year is easier to pump it up a notch than it would be in the doldrums of January and February."
Greene feels the Huskies still have another gear they will be able to access.
"We can always get better," she said. "I don't think we've hit our peak."
And while some may think that another Big East tourney title -- this was UConn's 16th -- might not mean that much to this team, it really did.
"This is one more step to the main goal," Greene said. "I wanted to play hard and build momentum toward the NCAA tournament."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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