Huskies learn to win by any means necessary
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For much of the night, in a game against an old rival it knew all too well, Connecticut looked like a team that didn't know where it was going. Then it felt something as comfortably familiar as it was foreign to past Connecticut teams.
Geno Auriemma's team felt the wall at its back and knew it had been here before.
After rallying from a 14-point deficit in the first half, the Huskies are headed back to the Final Four for the first time in four years after a 66-56 win against Rutgers. And if the win wasn't exactly scintillating, it was more than satisfying for the architect of a flawed favorite.
"We don't have all of the answers to every question like we have in other years," Auriemma said. "We struggle at times, just like other teams struggle. But this particular team didn't necessarily get to the Final Four on talent and the experience of having been there and having three or four college All-Americans. This team got there on a lot of intangibles that make you appreciate coaching."
Even after the tide had turned for good in the second half, with the clock ticking down under two minutes to play and Connecticut clinging to a 55-52 lead, Renee Montgomery was dropped to the ground by a solid screen from behind by Kia Vaughn. What was the distraction that prevented her from seeing, or at least sensing, the impending chiropractic event? Her own coach shouting out defensive instructions from the sideline.
It was just that kind of night.
"I really don't think this was a pretty win for us," Maya Moore said in an understatement worthy of a veteran. "This was one of our more ugly, kind of have to grind it out wins."
A team that entered the game leading the nation in field-goal percentage, and which hit more than half its shots in each of its first three NCAA tournament games, couldn't shoot straight, when it could get shots at all. And despite the misses, a group that averaged more offensive rebounds than any Connecticut team in recent memory collected a season-low five offensive boards.
The Huskies looked least like themselves in the game's opening minutes against a Rutgers defense trying to score an early knockout. Brittany Ray, who started for just the sixth time this season for the Scarlet Knights, face-guarded Moore in a concerted effort to neutralize the Big East Player of the Year. And with C. Vivian Stringer opting to employ her press more frequently than at any point since she lost Myia McCurdy to a season-ending injury, the Scarlet Knights scored 12 points off turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
"That wasn't our best half at all," UConn senior Brittany Hunter said. "That was probably the worst half we had all season. And it just sucks because it was the first half, and that's when we usually try to get up on players. And the score looked too much like that should have been us and not them."
As things went from bad to worse early, it was hard not to look at Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene, both out for the season with knee injuries, on the end of the Connecticut bench and wonder if time had finally caught up with a team down two starters.
Montgomery and Ketia Swanier missed 9 of 10 shots from behind the arc in the first half, unable to exploit some of the open looks Thomas thrived on for the better part of four seasons. And minus Greene's inside-outside versatility on the wing, Connecticut lost control of Essence Carson (12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first half) and the glass.
But instead of letting things spiral out of control, as had happened in last year's regional final against LSU, Connecticut began to climb back into the game even before halftime. Charde Houston opened up a stagnant half-court offense and scored eight big points off the bench. Montgomery came up with two steals and converted in transition. And when Kaili McLaren executed a picture-perfect drop step in the closing seconds and converted, the Huskies found themselves down just 32-27 after once trailing by 14.
As they had over the course of an entire season, the Huskies found ways to fight through without two key components on the court.
"I think a few of us had that spirit more so, but over the course of the year, I think collectively, we developed it even more," Moore said. "And I think a big game was North Carolina, where we were down 11 at halftime and we had to fight back. We saw that we could do it. And just throughout the year, all the other challenges we've had -- [the possibility of] not having our seniors going to the Final Four -- we had no choice but to be fighters at that point."
As Rutgers, by Stringer's own admission, tired down the stretch in the second half, Connecticut made the plays it needed to make. Momentarily matched up against Epiphanny Prince after Montgomery slipped to the floor, Hunter came from behind to block a shot after being beaten off the dribble. Moments after kicking a sure layup out of bounds on a breakaway, Moore came off a screen and hit a 3-pointer to give the Huskies their first lead. And Montgomery hounded a weary Matee Ajavon into turnover after turnover.
As often as Connecticut cruised to wins in the second half during the regular season, it wasn't unprepared for the challenge ahead in the second half against Rutgers.
"He just puts us in situations that he knows we're going to be in down the road, and this is one of them," Tina Charles said of Auriemma. "In practice, he'll put us down 10 against the practice players and we'll have to come back. And we won't leave the gym until we beat him -- beat them and beat him as well. So I think that helps us a lot."
It was fitting that as the parade to the free-throw line commenced in the closing minutes, sophomore Charles calmly knocked down free throw after free throw. On a night when UConn struggled to do so many things it had done with relative ease in building the profile of the tournament's top seed, a 57 percent free-throw shooter calmly knocking down clutch shots seemed an appropriate symbol of survival.
Almost as fitting as Auriemma at a loss for words.
"I think the reaction when the buzzer went off, the reaction from the players on the floor and the players on the bench, that's something I wouldn't be able to put into words," Auriemma said. "And I wouldn't be able to do it any justice if I tried."
Perhaps there were a few wrong turns along the way, but the Huskies are headed back 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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2008 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament
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Sweet 16• Dish: Welcome to the Party, Texas A&M
• Hays: Knights not satisfied with win
• Hays: Hobbled Hunter finds ways to help Huskies
• Voepel: UNC overcomes slow start for comeback
• Voepel: White-Riley better than LSU-OK State
• Voepel: Black back, driving force for Blue Devils
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• Voepel: Talent-laden Louisville ready for UNC
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• Voepel: Oklahoma City Regional
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First two rounds• Tuesday's Tournament Dish: Big East flavor
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• Voepel: Moore so good we're left wanting more
• Hays: Defending champs get defensive
• Monday's Tournament Dish: Cowgirls up!
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• Voepel: Huskies vs. Horns? Try Geno vs. Gail
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