UConn Huskies really put to test
Baylor's ability to put UConn on ropes suddenly makes season more interesting
HARTFORD, Conn. -- It will really be only in retrospect that we'll see what this November game means to the 2010-11 women's basketball season and the sport's history in general.
Did No. 1 Connecticut's 65-64 down-to-the-wire victory over No. 2 Baylor on Tuesday signal that as long as amazing senior Maya Moore remains on the floor, the Huskies will find a way to win another national championship? Did it mean that the UConn freshmen, from whom so much is needed, are indeed going to provide enough? Was it an indication that the UConn winning streak -- now at 80 in a row -- will continue right on past the NCAA Division I mark of 88, set by the UCLA men in 1971-74?
Or was this game more a sign that the marauders -- the collective group of the best of UConn's opponents this season -- really are at the Huskies' door? Was Baylor's struggle at the line -- 57.1 percent, with sophomore center Brittney Griner making just 5 of 13 free throws -- mostly what kept the visiting group from riding back to Waco, Texas, as streak-busters? For that matter, if Baylor had made just a few less than its 24 turnovers, might we be talking about a new No. 1 team?
All conjecture, of course, but how nice to have the opportunity to speculate. How much was really left to wonder about during the last two seasons? The Huskies' back-to-back perfect seasons were devoid of nail-biting games. Frankly, there weren't even very many intriguing moments; last season's NCAA title game win over Stanford, by six points, was the Huskies' first single-digit victory in the streak.
But Tuesday, the Huskies really were threatened. They were on the ropes. They had to rally and keep their cool in some tense situations. They had to make big offensive rebounds and nail clutch shots. They had to do all that with three freshmen getting significant playing time.
"I was just proud of the way my teammates responded," said Moore, who had 30 points, seven rebounds and six steals while spending all 40 minutes on the floor. "That was a really big moment for us, and we haven't really been tested."
She was referring to just this young season, but the reality is that the Huskies have faced very few true challenges during their streak, which dates back to the start of the 2008-09 season.
For the rest of the nation's women's hoops fans, it has been kind of like looking at photographs of somebody else's amazing vacation to a far-flung tropical paradise. They can admire it, marvel at the scenery, acknowledge that it really is something else but after awhile, they have seen enough. Only the people who went on the trip will never tire of looking at it.
Or is that even true? The XL Center wasn't sold out -- not even close -- which makes you wonder if there really is such thing as victory fatigue. Are even some of the Huskies fans a little weary of so much success?
Certainly, that wasn't the case for the majority of the 12,628 in attendance, which save for a sprinkling of Baylor fans, made plenty of noise as their Huskies got up by as many as 15 points, then trailed by eight, and then rallied for their most stirring regular-season victory since
Well, you have to think about it, don't you? Go back to the 2008 Big East season and a 77-76 UConn win at DePaul on March 1. A little more than a month later, the Huskies fell to Stanford in the national semifinals, but there have been no UConn losses since.
No losses of games, that is. The Huskies have lost top players, such as Renee Montgomery, Tina Charles and Kalana Greene, but the UConn way to play for coach Geno Auriemma is handed down generation to generation.
Some of the biggest names from a past generation, in fact, were here Tuesday to cheer on their alma mater. Swin Cash and Sue Bird -- teammates on two NCAA title teams at UConn, with the WNBA champion Seattle Storm this season, and on USA Basketball team that won the world championship in October -- watched as the senior Moore and junior Tiffany Hayes added to the Huskies' highlight reel.
"I had to calm myself down, because I could feel myself getting so into it," Cash said of her enthusiastic cheering while seated behind the UConn bench. "Regardless of how many years go by, there's still that connection. I was always kind of more the really emotional one, and I think Tiffany is like that. Sue was more the quiet assassin type, and Maya is like that.
"But I also think Maya has become such a leader for these younger players; she gives them confidence. Maya's giving them the ball when they're open and cheering them on. She's such a smart player. She knows that nobody, no matter how good you are, can do it alone."
For a while, though, Moore -- who also played on the world championship team in the Czech Republic with Cash and Bird -- was a one-woman show. She made a variety of baskets, including a preposterously remarkable tip-in off a ball that bounced high when Griner blocked a shot. Moore had 20 points at halftime, as UConn led 35-27.
Baylor had 17 turnovers at the break, but coach Kim Mulkey didn't really think that had much to do with recently losing senior point guard Kelli Griffin, who left the team. Mulkey felt the passing mistakes were spread around. She was quite pleased with rookie point guard Odyssey Simms, who finished with 17 points and played, in Mulkey's words, "as good as any freshman I've ever had."
However, she wasn't happy that Griner took only four shots in the first half and had just six points at the break, mostly because she just wasn't getting the ball.
"In the first half, we were trying to make post-entry passes after one pass. We needed to have ball reversal," Mulkey said. "They were deflecting it, tipping it and we had a lot of turnovers.
"We harped at halftime about, 'Just give yourself an opportunity and take care of the ball.'"
Baylor did that much better in the second half, and Griner went to work on the youthful UConn defenders. Freshmen Samarie Walker and Stefanie Dolson both showed some moxie, but fouled out trying to slow Griner, who finished with 19 points, nine blocks and seven rebounds.
Finally, it was redshirt sophomore Heather Buck's turn to try, and some recent challenging words from Auriemma seemed to help motivate her.
"The other day we were playing five-on-five, and I said to Heather, 'As long as you're on the court, we're playing five-on-four,'" Auriemma said. "You know what? I think it helped. Because when she went in today, she had a little bit of spunk to her.
"Maybe that was an important seven minutes for her. The scenario was almost perfect tonight to show people the things they needed to see."
That goes for Baylor, too. Melissa Jones, the warrior senior, had a team-high 14 rebounds but was 2-of-10 from the field, finishing with five points. Brooklyn Pope, a transfer from Rutgers with all kinds of talent, also had just five points. But supplementing Griner and Sims in double figures was Kimetria Hayden, whose 15 points are an indication of how much depth Baylor should have on the perimeter even with Griffin gone.
A year ago in the State Farm Tip-off Classic game in November, Baylor fell to Tennessee. But when it came time for the Sweet 16 meeting between those programs during the NCAA tournament, Baylor was the winner.
Knowing this season's team will grow just as last year's did, Mulkey wasn't upset after Tuesday's game.
"Do you see us crying?" she said. "We go home and get ready for Michigan State. I learned I've got a talented basketball team, and y'all better keep writing about them."
But the same goes, of course, for UConn. The streak continues, and next up is a trip to Georgia, where Moore went to high school. The Huskies face Georgia Tech on Sunday in Atlanta.
"I don't think it will take long after we start practice tomorrow, the adrenaline will be gone and we'll get focused again," Moore said. "It is a road game, so we're going to expect a crowd against us. These [freshmen] will get a taste of that, and hopefully, we'll build on tonight."
Tuesday, everyone got a taste of what this season could be: more interesting for those not pulling for the Huskies. Still, it went down as another UConn victory.
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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