- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
TRENTON, N.J. -- If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles, or so goes at least one translation of Sun Tzu's "Art of War."
Connecticut needs to win just two more basketball battles to finish off its perfect season with a national championship, a goal it moved one step closer to with an 83-64 victory over Arizona State in Tuesday's regional final. And, as will be made clear throughout the rest of the week, Connecticut definitely knows the first foe that awaits in St. Louis. It was Stanford, after all, that handed the Huskies their last loss, a year ago in the national semifinals in Tampa, Fla.
But it was two of Stanford's Pac-10 peers that allowed the Huskies to reaffirm the second part of the axiom.
Because, as was the case in a 24-point win against California two days earlier, Connecticut beat Arizona State by the kind of margin teams aren't supposed to win by this late in the postseason, and did so despite playing far less than its best basketball.
When they're clicking on all cylinders, the Huskies might be the best show in recent memory in women's college basketball. If Trenton is any indication, they might still be the best team this season even if, by their own unique standards, they're sputtering for stretches in second gear.
"There's a collective mindset on the team," Geno Auriemma said. "They know it's going to happen, and they're not doubting whether it will happen, or can it even happen. Each and every time that we've been tested, the response seems to be the same."
As Renee Montgomery curled around a screen late and with her team in possession of a lead that was sizable if still not entirely comfortable, she stumbled, reached out to stop her fall and watched an inbounds pass from Kalana Greene sail over her head for UConn turnover No. 17 of the night (on the way to 18 turnovers, almost five more than the team's season average). Montgomery might have had some assistance in her stumble from a Sun Devils player; she might not have. In a sense, it was that kind of night for a team that shot 59 percent, pulled down 26 more rebounds than Arizona State and still found itself hovering within a Sun Devils run of trouble late in the game.
A night when Auriemma watched, mouth agape, as Tina Charles -- unable to find an outlet after one of her 13 rebounds -- took off up the court to lead the break, only to realize her unfamiliar surroundings around midcourt and narrowly avoid a turnover while getting the ball to more experienced hands.
Credit Arizona State for a good portion of the game's generally discombobulating demeanor. Coach Charli Turner Thorne's teams are almost always among the nation's leaders in forcing turnovers, and this edition was at its pressuring, pestering best Tuesday. But this was also a night when the Huskies might have wished they could take Auriemma's course pass-fail because what was on display at times was anything but their A-game.
"We definitely didn't [play our best]," Greene said. "Renee didn't play the best game Sunday; Tiffany [Hayes] didn't play the best game today. Everyone didn't play 100 percent -- their A-game -- today. But the fact that we have people who are not playing the game they're usually playing and we still pull out the lead and play just as hard is good."
And that's the catch. Catching Connecticut on an off day simply isn't enough.
Montgomery picked up three fouls in the first half, but instead of coming out of the break cautiously running with her foot off the accelerator, she blazed out of the gates, black-and-white speed traps be damned. She answered a Briann January 3-pointer that cut the lead to eight points with an end-to-end rush for a layup, and scored again on the next possession to extend the lead to 12 points. By the time the Sun Devils called a timeout at the 14:06 mark, January already had six points and one assist without a turnover in the half.
"When she plays like that, it's like you can feel everyone, like a collective sigh of relief," Connecticut assistant coach Shea Ralph said. "Because Renee, she's kind of the pulse of this team. She's the heartbeat of the team, not only on the court but in the locker room and on the bus. I mean, that kid is our leader. And so for her to be able to come out -- and there was a little unease in the locker room because we didn't play well in the first half and she had some foul trouble, she sat on the bench for the end of the first half.
"So for her to come out and just kind of punch them right in the face -- figuratively -- to throw the first punch like that for our team, was like, 'All right, we're ready to go.'"
At least two of the early fouls on Montgomery were of debatable enough merit that, whether or not they were the right decisions, a normal 22-year-old might have felt hard done by in what could have been her final college game. Not surprisingly, the calls visibly irritated Auriemma. Yet aside from a slight look of befuddlement or disbelief, Montgomery didn't let the hard luck take her out of the game. As was the case with Maya Moore, who finished with 25 points and a number of back-breaking 3-pointers, the stars stepped up when needed most.
"She never got frustrated," Auriemma said of Montgomery. "She never allowed it to change her approach. She just kept attacking. There were a couple of times when I was just praying she would pull it out, and she just kept going, pulled up and made shots. I'm glad Renee has the kind of confidence that she does because sometimes she amazes me."
The day before Connecticut played for its spot in the Final Four, Greene singled out this group's resistance to panic as a key difference from a year ago. It was a theme Moore echoed after the win, as she reflected on last season's semifinal against Stanford.
"I really do think at times we doubted ourselves in that game, and it hurt us," Moore said.
That wasn't the case against Cal on Sunday when, as in the game against Stanford last season, Connecticut fell behind by eight points in the first half. And it wasn't the case Tuesday when, instead of a 40-minute victory lap, the Huskies had to earn their way to St. Louis.
It wasn't pretty, but as the players danced in front of the pep band after the final horn, it didn't seem to faze them. Then again, not much does.
"We came back and tried to counter, and even if we didn't, we just kept on going at them," Montgomery said. "And I think that just shows the confidence we have in each other and the confidence we have in our team."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.