Commentary

Huskies turn up the defense against ISU

As much as Moore and Charles shine on offense, UConn's real strength is its defense

Originally Published: March 28, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

DAYTON, Ohio -- The road alongside University of Dayton Arena is named in honor of world-class hurdler and hometown product Edwin Moses, perhaps best known for winning 122 races in a row. Only three games remain for some basketball team, any team, to prove that stretch of asphalt won't be the closest the University of Connecticut women's basketball team comes to interacting with an athletic peer during this tournament.

To that end, Connecticut's defense makes a strong case through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament that it's without peer at the moment. And perhaps at any moment.

[+] EnlargeTina Charles
AP Photo/Mark DuncanBlocking shots is one thing. Doing it with such finesse as to keep the ball in play? That's Tina Charles' defensive mentality.

What looked on paper like at least an intriguing strategic battle Sunday between the tournament's top seed and an Iowa State team with the ability to pile up points from the 3-point line, yet enough size and athleticism to lead the Big 12 in rebounding margin in conference play, turned into an 74-36 rout of, well, increasingly expected proportions.

"Connecticut certainly is as good as advertised," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "I don't think I've had a whipping like that since I was a little kid and broke something of my mom's."

The final score marked the third game in this tournament the Huskies won by at least 35 points and the third game in a row in which the opponent failed to break 40 points. Southern, Temple and Iowa State, respectively, ought to represent increasingly difficult challenges to defend. Instead, Connecticut keeps proving increasingly stingy.

"We always say we hate when teams score, and you can tell," Connecticut's Kalana Greene said. "This was a team that was going to be a defensive challenge for us because you've got a guy that is 6-7 that can step out and shoot 3s. Guys that can shoot from deep and control the tempo. We thought it was going to be a really good challenge, so we came in needing extra focus -- 'Let's not let 4 and 11 score, and let's be ready for the 6-7 kid to come out and step out.'"

For the record, Alison Lacey (No. 4) scored nine points, and Kelsey Bolte went scoreless on just three shots in 29 minutes. And Anna Prins, the 6-foot-7 post with the outside touch, needed 14 shots to score 10 points.

The three entered averaging a few ticks better than 38 points per game collectively, or two more than their entire team scored Sunday.

It was a game that started with an offensive display from Moore, who hit two 3-pointers in the game's opening 90 seconds and four total inside of 10 minutes before a pair of fouls forced her to the bench for the remainder of the half. But it was a game the Huskies controlled with defense. Outside of Iowa State freshman Chelsea Poppens, who had half of her team's six offensive rebounds and eight points, there wasn't any such thing as an easy look for the underdog. It wasn't so much a parade of turnovers (the Cyclones committed 18, leading to 19 points for the Huskies) as sheer suffocation by five defenders.

If you want to see the two most talented players in the country, watch Connecticut with the ball. If you want to see the best team in the country, watch Connecticut when the other team has the ball.

FSU coaches don't want pretty. They want bruise marks. They want welts. They want the Seminoles to rebound until UConn drops. They want to force the Huskies to shoot over their 2-3 zone, rather than watch UConn feed it low to All-American center Tina Charles or All-American forward Maya Moore dribble drive along the baseline for an easy two.

"Offense is not something you can think about," Greene said. "It's just all in the flow of the game because sometimes you're off. There's nothing you can do about it; you're either going to make or miss your shot. It's not because of lack of effort or lack of concentration. Sometimes the ball just doesn't fall. On defense, you can afford that. You'll find ways to accidentally get the ball in the hole. But on defense, we just can't let teams score."

Even when the Huskies do something wrong on defense, it comes from the right thought. At one point late in the first half, with her team already comfortably in front by nearly 30 points, Tina Charles closed out on a shooter lining up for a 3-pointer in the corner and blocked the shot with just enough force to keep it in play. She tried to save the ball from bouncing out of bounds but ended up throwing it in the direction of an Iowa State player. After the game, the All-American post noted she shouldn't have tried to make the save under the other team's basket.

Sure, but how many other elite shot blockers would have simply swatted the shot two or three rows deep into the stands for effect? How many would have gotten out there in the first place?

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMaya Moore hit all four of her 3-point attempts in the first half, outscoring Iowa State 16-14 at the break all by herself.

"I mean you saw her out at the 3-point line today blocking shots," Connecticut's Caroline Doty said. "Her ability to move around and know where the ball is and not foul? We're going to definitely miss her next year, miss her presence not only offensively but defensively, being at the right spot at the right time, being able to guard on the perimeter or inside. She's a threat everywhere."

Moore is no slouch herself defensively, despite coach Geno Auriemma's occasional prodding and needling on the subject. And that's the point. It's two of the biggest stars in the game playing both ends. It's Greene, whom Auriemma told repeatedly was the worst defender in America early in her time in Storrs. And it's Doty, the shooter and de facto point guard who nonetheless spent much of her rehab last spring from knee surgery focusing on things like squats with the specific goal of getting her legs ready for defense.

Nowhere is this team more than the sum of its talented parts than on defense.

"I think the most special part of being in this program is the collective energy that you feel from our head coach all the way down to our freshmen of how important this season is and how much people care about the team," Moore said. "And when you need somebody to do something, you know they're going to be there. And when you come with that energy and you're excited, you know they're going to share that. We all are on the same page, it's really fun to play.

"At different levels you may not get that. People may be on their own agendas or other pages or somewhere else. But you know when you come here, everybody is here for the same thing."

Playing defense and winning, in that order.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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