Turner the star, but gets plenty of help
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- In the first half, Barbara Turner proved she couldn't beat Georgia by herself. In the second half, Turner proved Connecticut couldn't beat the Bulldogs without her.
Turner's 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left in Sunday's regional semifinal game against No. 3 seed Georgia, the final points of her career-best 31-point effort, gave the Huskies a breathtaking 77-75 victory and a much-anticipated showdown with Duke on Tuesday night in Bridgeport (ESPN, 9 ET).
But for all of Turner's heroics, the senior's career might have been a thing of the past had it not been for the future showing its face for the Huskies.
And not a second too soon.
Trailing by 15 points midway through the first half, that future looked bleak for Connecticut. Or perhaps more accurately, the future looked overwhelmed.
Facing a Georgia backcourt that seemed to be everywhere in the game's opening minutes, Connecticut youngsters Renee Montgomery, Ketia Swanier and Charde Houston wilted under the pressure. Montgomery had her pocket picked within a few feet of her exasperated coach, Swanier could barely stay on her feet and Houston collected two early fouls, all as the Bulldogs built a 23-8 lead in front of a stunned partisan crowd -- the loudest cheer in the opening game between Duke and Michigan State came when the Huskies left the stands and headed to the locker room -- at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma described the mindset of his non-seniors as, "The other guys were going, 'I wonder how Barbara and Ann are going to win this game tonight.' They were just kind of standing around and not sure, 'How do I respond in this situation?' "
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Even Georgia's players couldn't quite seem to believe what was happening early on.
As Georgia forward Megan Darrah waited for the referee's whistle so she could inbound the ball at midcourt with just less than 11 minutes to play in the opening half, she briefly looked up at the sold-out crowd with a quizzical gaze. Likely startled by a sound or just reacting to a stray thought, it still looked like she had suddenly remembered where she and the Lady Bulldogs were playing, without being entirely sure how they found themselves in possession of such a big lead.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the members of Connecticut's enigmatic younger generation soon seemed to get their own bearings.
As the clocked ticked down to 7 minutes remaining in the first half and Georgia's lead expanded to 15 points, Turner and Strother were still the only Huskies who had scored. Turner, in particular, played the entire game like a senior with every intention of being around for another opening tip. One of the smaller power forwards among the nation's elite teams, she threw her body around with abandon, grabbing four offensive rebounds and scoring 12 points in a first half that seemed destined to represent her biggest contribution on the night.
Fittingly for a point guard, Montgomery stepped up first in support of the seniors, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers in less than a 60-second span to draw the Huskies within nine points with 6 minutes to play in the half. As unsure of herself as she had looked against the quick hands of Georgia's Sherill Baker in the early minutes, Montgomery drained both shots without a moment of hesitation.
Even Auriemma was unable to pinpoint exactly what changed for the freshman.
"Something clicked," the coach said. "I don't know what it was. Renee has a habit of doing that. Like she just looks lost, she just looks not sure, and then she looks like the best guard in the country."
After another empty possession for the Bulldogs, Houston found her legs long enough to collect a three-point play, Montgomery followed with her third 3-pointer in less than three minutes, cutting the lead to 25-22 and driving the crowd into a frenzy loud enough to make it difficult to remember that Georgia still had the lead.
Swanier, by this time playing alongside Montgomery in a backcourt pairing that gained steam as the season went on, hit a layup to trim the lead to a single point, and after a free throw from Tasha Humphrey, Montgomery tied it with a short jumper.
Just like that, without another point from either Turner or Strother, the group of young players who had looked so lost in the opening minutes had erased a deficit that Auriemma admitted after the game had him thinking back to a blowout home loss to North Carolina in December.
Turner took over from there, starting with two free throws to give the Huskies their first lead since the game's first moments and finishing with 21 of her team's 43 points in the second half.
But unlike the start of the game, when Turner's frenzied rebounds and relentless post assaults stood in stark contrast to her teammates, she led the way down the stretch at the forefront of a team playing with complete confidence in each other.
Confidence they needed against a resilient Georgia team that refused to give up after losing its lead, riding an inspired performance from Humphrey and late clutch shooting from Alexis Kendrick and Cori Chambers.
Confidence that manifested itself in Swanier's drives, Montgomery's passing, Strother's clutch 3-pointer with less than a minute to play and even little-used reserve Kelana Greene's layup after she and Brittany Hunter checked in to give Turner and Strother a brief rest.
Even in the warm-and-fuzzy afterglow of Turner's miracle, Auriemma derived the most pleasure from something that might mean more when the Huskies take the court on Tuesday night.
"Everybody that played in the game made some sort of contribution," Auriemma said. "And I thought that was the best part of the win. Even though, obviously, Barbara Turner's contribution was the biggest. I don't know that we could have won this game a couple of months ago."
The Huskies wouldn't have beaten Georgia without a career night from Turner. But come Tuesday night, perhaps they now know they won't need a repeat performance from her to earn a trip to the Final Four.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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