- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TRENTON, N.J. -- Sunday's forecast in New Jersey's capital city called for isolated severe thunderstorms giving way to eventual evening clearing. But inside Sovereign Bank Arena, top-seeded Connecticut found itself in the eye of the perfect storm during the first half of a Sweet 16 game against fourth-seeded California.
With just more than six minutes to play in the opening half, the Huskies trailed by eight points. Not only was it the team's largest deficit in an otherwise unblemished season, it also was the same deficit Connecticut faced with just more than six minutes to play in last season's national semifinal against Stanford, another Pac-10 team with a pair of versatile post players and a collection of experienced guards capable of making shots.
What Connecticut didn't have on that night in Tampa was Florida native Tiffany Hayes.
Behind 28 points from Hayes, including 16 during a first half in which the rest of her teammates shot 25 percent from the floor, Connecticut fought back to claim a two-point lead at the break and eased out of rough waters to claim a convincing 77-53 win.
No wonder that during his team's run to the Big East tournament title, coach Geno Auriemma offered a somewhat surprisingly effusive assessment of his publicly shy freshman.
"She's smart, she's tough, she's hard-nosed; she's just not experienced," Auriemma had said at that time. "She's going to be the next great one, I think."
He was only slightly less ebullient after Sunday's game.
"She's always been a confident individual," Auriemma said. "That was evident the very first time I saw her play during summer when she was in high school. And her first couple of weeks of practice at Connecticut, other than stamina. There was never any doubt in her mind that she would make a big contribution to what we were doing."
And although Hayes said this was the first time all season she had felt truly nervous before a game, the truth is that sometimes the worst thing about experience is knowing exactly what awaits you.
Sometimes adrenaline trumps advance knowledge.
For its part, Cal didn't come out of the gates like a team worried about its inexperience at this stage of the postseason. Playing in the first Sweet 16 game in program history, the Bears trailed for most of the first minute -- longer than the total amount of time they trailed in beating Fresno State and Virginia to reach Trenton -- then promptly went on a 7-0 run.
On the way to claiming a 31-23 lead, Cal hit 5 of 9 shots from behind the arc. More often than not, those shots were either uncontested or barely contested by a Connecticut defender scrambling to close out the shooter after sliding down to help out in the post. Before the game, Auriemma told his team Cal would have a hard time scoring if it didn't hit 3-pointers and free throws. Of the underdog's first 31 points, 19 came on those shots.
"We knew they had good 3-point shooters, but we had a lot of focus on the big guys, because [Ashley] Walker and [Devanei] Hampton, they got a majority of their shots and points," Kalana Greene explained. "We still had to defend the 3. I think we concentrated a little bit too much early on on those two and got sucked in too deep, and they got a lot of open 3s. And Ashley Walker stepped out and hit a lot of big 3s. Once we stayed honest on defense and pick and choose when to go out there and when to pick the ball up, they didn't know how to score."
She's always been a confident individual. That was evident the very first time I saw her play during summer when she was in high school. And her first couple of weeks of practice at Connecticut, other than stamina. There was never any doubt in her mind that she would make a big contribution to what we were doing.
”-- Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma on freshman Tiffany Hayes
Like Stanford, with Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen in the Final Four last year, Cal took full advantage early of possessing two players with the ability to score from the block, pass out of the post and step outside the lane -- or, in Walker's case, even beyond the 3-point line. Entering Sunday's game, she had hit just 10 3-pointers all season, but she made 3 of 4 attempts from behind the arc against Connecticut.
It didn't help that the whistles blew early and often away from the ball as players tried to establish inside position, most notably sending Connecticut's Tina Charles to the bench with a pair of fouls inside the first five minutes.
Kaili McLaren played a tremendous game off the bench for the Huskies, finishing with nine rebounds and bodying up Hampton for long stretches on a night when the Cal senior finished 2-of-14 from the floor. But Walker and Hampton's presence inside -- and ability to move outside -- caused problems in the first half for a Connecticut team that can't list excessive bulk among its many strengths when either Charles or McLaren is in foul trouble.
"[Walker and Hampton] work well together, as both the Stanford posts did -- and as they do," Connecticut sophomore Maya Moore said. "They are a team. I think those two teams are among the elite as far as having an inside presence. And it's going to be a challenge for Tina and myself and Kaili, or whoever comes in as the posts, to try to stop the inside games of those teams. And tonight, we worked, we battled and we came out with a win."
Of course, even as the defense turned up the heat in the second half, that win was owed in no small measure to Hayes. Connecticut's season began with talk about one freshman's departure and hit its biggest roadblock when one in the starting lineup, Caroline Doty, suffered a season-ending knee injury. And even if the season might still have continued without Hayes on Sunday, her breakout performance made it a more familiar Huskies rout.
The player she replaced in the starting lineup, Doty, is also Hayes' roommate and the one who had the biggest hug waiting when Hayes finally came off the court for the final time.
"Today, I was just so proud of her, so happy for her, because I knew she had it in her the entire time," Doty said. "I knew she had put up extra shots before we left, between classes, and she's been working so hard all year. I'm just happy it finally paid off."
Hayes missed just two shots all day -- one from behind the arc and one from the free throw line to finish 9-for-10 from the field and 5-for-6 at the foul line. She spotted up for 3-pointers, pulled up almost casually off the dribble from long distance and blew by defenders for layups. And as if that weren't enough, she finished with five rebounds and seven assists. If Moore's physique, polish and play sometimes make one think of LeBron James, the lithe Hayes pulled a Michael Jordan, circa 1986.
And after a late 3-pointer pushed the lead back to a comfortable 19 points, Hayes backpedaled down the court with a smile etched wide across her face as her shoulders bobbed up and down in what seemed to be half dance move and half shrug.
"I think it's with everybody, you're kind of shy the first couple of days," Doty said. "And then once you get in the groove and kind of find your role, you get comfortable. She's obviously comfortable on the court with the team, her role and everything. And her hitting those shots in a big-time game, you get a little hyped, and a little bit of you comes out."
And that means storm clouds on the horizon for Connecticut's would-be challengers.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Like Stanford in last year's national semifinals, Cal's posts presented Connecticut problems. But freshman Tiffany Hayes' 28 points helped push the unbeaten Huskies past the Bears and into the Elite Eight.