UConn one win away from perfection
Huskies simply play better game of basketball in advancing past Stanford
ST. LOUIS -- It's not often that Connecticut finds itself at a physical and athletic standstill in any arena. And considering Zelmo Beaty and the NBA's Hawks left St. Louis for Atlanta in 1968, it might not have seemed like the city by the banks of the Mississippi River would offer anything different to a team two wins from perfection.
But in advancing to face old foe Louisville in Tuesday's national championship game, Connecticut didn't run through, over or around the team that last got the best of it on the scoreboard. It simply played a better game of basketball than Stanford in an 83-64 win.
This was a fair fight, one of the first the Huskies have faced all season.
When 6-foot-4 Kayla Pedersen put the ball on the floor, drove baseline, met Maya Moore halfway to the basket and came away with an open jumper while the nation's best player lay on her back, official Melissa Barlow just shook her head and put her arms out to both sides in the familiar sign to play on -- ask no quarter; give no quarter.
"They have talent at every position," Moore said after scoring 24 points. "I think that their inside game is relentless; they always are trying to get it inside and score. For a minute there, their running game was getting the best of us. They're going to work the ball and try to get the shot that they want. They're very disciplined and they worked hard the whole game."
So it's all the more impressive that after taking a few punches early, the Huskies went to their corner at the end of the first round and delivered a standing eight count in the early moments of the second half. Up by a comfortable 13 points at halftime, Connecticut doubled that lead in the first five minutes of the second half and guaranteed the second semifinal would have none of the drama of Louisville's comeback win against Oklahoma.
"They're just really intertwined and really connected right now," coach Geno Auriemma said of his team. "And they have been since September. My job's been much easier this year than the last three or four years in terms of knowing that they're ready to play."
In some ways, the contrasting nights of Connecticut's biggest player and the smallest player on the court for much of the game summed up that interdependence and trust.
Playing in the midst of giants, 5-foot-7 Renee Montgomery erased all memories of last season's semifinal loss in which she hit just 4 of 18 shots and finished with one assist in 40 minutes. For a team that hears the word at every turn, she was about as close to perfect on this night as a guard is likely to get on a stage this big. She finished with 26 points, including three 3-pointers, six assists, four steals and just one turnover in 35 minutes.
When Appel kept piling up field goals in the first half, at one point giving the Cardinal a brief 14-13 lead, it was Montgomery who answered with a 3-pointer that gave her team a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Then, as if for good measure, she scored six of her team's next eight points and assisted on the lone basket she didn't put home. By halftime, Montgomery had 15 points -- the same total she scored in 40 minutes against Stanford last year.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said she told Auriemma after the game that as good as Wade Trophy winner Moore was on this night, Montgomery played like the national player of the year.
"Whether she's making incredible plays in practice or doing it on ESPN, it doesn't matter; Renee's just a special player," Connecticut junior Kaili McLaren said. "She's gifted, and when she's got it going, it's almost impossible to stop her."
Connecticut's Tina Charles wasn't in quite as much demand after the game. She attempted just six shots in 31 minutes, and while she recorded double-digit rebounds for the 14th time this season, it was Montgomery and Moore who earned the spotlight. But as much as people complain, sometimes openly and sometimes in hushed tones, about the inherent advantage Connecticut has with a starting lineup loaded with McDonald's All-Americans, there's a reason all-star teams usually only play exhibition games.
And after a long and imperfect night spent giving up inches and pounds to Jayne Appel -- and hearing about it from her coach with seemingly every trip up and down the court -- Charles proved she could be the post presence the Huskies needed on a night when what they asked for weren't scoring heroics or blocked shots but 30-plus minutes of the hardest, most thankless kind of defensive grunt work against one of the nation's best.
"We knew that they'd give the ball to her every time she's up the court, pretty much," Huskies assistant coach Shea Ralph said of Appel. "We knew that about them, and Tina knew the challenges that were ahead of her. I thought Tina did a really good job for the most part; that kid is tough to defend. We had some guards running at her, obviously, because we're not going to hold her scoreless."
Appel was fantastic in her own right, finishing with 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting. But Charles, spelled ably by McLaren and with help from the team's guards, made the Stanford junior work for position every possession, pushing her out of her familiar turf on the low block for long stretches.
Auriemma kept up the heat on Charles, as he almost always does, but she didn't relent under either his criticism or Appel's physicality. Stanford finished its NCAA tournament run having outscored opponents 212-92 in the paint. Charles made sure it wasn't enough.
"She's growing up; she's maturing," Moore said. "It's one of those things where she knows it's going to be a battle, and she battled the whole game. I don't think it's an easy thing to guard a talented player like Jayne Appel, and she came out and competed. And it was good enough -- it was more than enough on the scoreboard, because we ended up getting a pretty big win. But who knows, two years ago if she would have given up or she wouldn't have competed as hard.
"But she is where she is now because of her mental toughness and maturity."
And when you can say that about both the All-American doing the grunt work in the post and the All-American crafting the highlight reel on the perimeter, you have something.
All season long, Connecticut preferred to talk about taking things one game at a time rather than the possibility of perfection.
Now they're one and the same.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.