- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
STORRS, Conn. -- It's late in the opening half of Connecticut's first exhibition game and freshman Kelly Faris comes to the bench for the first time in her Huskies career. She pauses, maybe momentarily unsure where she's supposed to sit -- protocol isn't the stuff of childhood dreams. Then Kalana Greene motions to her to take the open seat next to associate coach Chris Dailey, typically the first stop for a player after exiting the game.
It's not Maya Moore casually dropping a 3-pointer from three steps behind the line. It's not Tina Charles rocking back ever so slightly in the post to feel the defender before spinning and exploding toward the basket. For that matter, it's not Greene slicing in from out of the frame to snatch an offensive rebound away from a flat-footed opponent.
By itself, it's a throwaway moment in a throwaway game. It won't do a thing to help the Huskies stop Jayne Appel, Brittainey Raven, Jasmine Thomas, Italee Lucas or any of the other challenges on a schedule rigorous even by Connecticut's standards. But the Huskies are also who they are, the defending national champions riding a 39-game winning streak, in part because every stone is turned and every role willingly filled.
They have Moore, the best player in the nation. They have Charles, the likely No. 1 pick in next year's WNBA draft. On any given night, those two alone could carry the Huskies to victory against anyone. But winning every night against teams constantly looking to make their name by taking down one of the sport's biggest programs requires more.
"We're pretty much used to that," Greene said of the target annually on the Huskies' backs. "We know that everyone is going to be coming at us. We've known that everyone plays their best game against UConn. We do scouting reports and it's, 'Oh, she hasn't made one 3 this year.' And then she comes out and she's made five. We're always the team targeted, and I think it helps us. It puts pressure on us to give the best effort.
"You can't ever promise numbers -- you're not always going to shoot well every night. But it forces us to have the best effort every night."
A fifth-year senior, Greene has a championship to her credit and aspirations of a career in the WNBA. Fully recovered from the torn ACL that cost her most of the 2007-08 season, she's a 5-foot-10 guard who was third on the team in offensive rebounds last season and shot 58 percent from the floor. And that was in her comeback year. As a sophomore, she averaged 7.5 rebounds per game, within a rebound less per game of Charles that season.
"I know sometimes I'm out there and I'll be going for a rebound, and she'll just snatch it out of my hands, and I'm like, 'All right, K,'" offered senior Kaili McLaren, duplicating the bemused shake of the head that might accompany the sight of Greene swooping in like a bird of prey. "But she's so athletic; she just demands attention on the court."
She could be looking for her share of the spotlight in her final season. But it's not more shots on her mind. She wants to do more, mind you, but the spotlight remains optional.
"I think this year my role is going to be a lot bigger -- not as far as on the court, but as a leader," Greene said. "I have to step up. A lot of things I've seen, [other teammates] haven't seen, and I've got to try to spread my knowledge, wisdom to them."
The team's challenge this season, of course, is taking so many of the pieces that fit so well together last season and trying to discover what picture they create without Renee Montgomery. The unquestioned leader, on and off the court, Montgomery was the perfect point guard for last year's puzzle -- a scoring point guard on an unselfish team but also a first-class distributor for a collection of teammates with distinct needs and talents.
It's a good thing everyone else in last season's rotation is back, because there are a lot of responsibilities to divvy up between them without her around. On the floor, that begins at point guard, where Lorin Dixon will likely start (once she recovers from a strained hamstring), but where Tiffany Hayes, Caroline Doty and Faris will also play key roles.
"It's not like [Montgomery] came in and last year was the first year she really got control of the ball; the ball was in her hands for four years straight," Greene said after the first exhibition. "The point guard position is so important. Our chemistry isn't there where we want it to be yet, but that's what we have exhibition games for; that's what we have practice for. But it's getting there. You see every day in practice we get progressively better."
Dixon isn't the shooter Montgomery was -- she has hit just four 3-pointers in two full seasons -- and that could break the circuit in the ball rotation that last season flowed several volts stronger than other teams. Hayes has no problem extending a defense, but she's still learning how to balance those looks against the rhythm of running an offense. The same goes for Doty. And Faris, for all her polish, is still a freshman.
The pieces are there, but it's just a matter of sorting out the roles.
"We have a lot of the same familiar faces but we're a completely different team," Greene said. "Last year was last year; nothing that happened last year is going to help us this year. You know, we can't say, 'Well, oh, we were 39-0; we were national champions.' None of that matters. We have to go out and prove ourselves every day again."
For Greene, that means doing what she has become so adept at doing -- going inside if she's on the court with two or three of the guards, pulling back outside if McLaren is in or Moore is posting up -- and always looking to fill whatever role completes the puzzle.
She could have gone to other big programs and scored points in bunches. So could Doty, Dixon, McLaren and everyone else in coach Geno Auriemma's primary rotation. But college basketball's best role player has never let her mind wander to alternate realities.
"I think if you feel that your decision was a good decision, what would have happened doesn't even matter," Greene said. "I felt I made a great decision. I could have gone to another school and gotten 20 shots a game and didn't set myself up to be a better player. You can get a lot of shots but not become a better player."
Familiar as this season's Huskies look, it might take them some time to figure out how everything goes together. Whether the winning streak rolls on through that learning process or comes to an end, bet on things running smoothly by March. That's Connecticut's role in women's college basketball.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.