A second half for the history books
After worst half in Huskies history, Moore helps UConn return to total domination
SAN ANTONIO -- Perfect might be the enemy of the good, but good enough proved perfection's greatest ally in the second half of Tuesday's national championship game.
Down by almost as many points at halftime as they managed to score in arguably the worst half of basketball by a Connecticut team since Geno Auriemma arrived in Storrs more than two decades ago, the Huskies rallied for a 53-47 victory over Stanford and a second straight perfect, if not flawless, season.
A game between two teams with the fewest losses of any two title combatants in NCAA tournament history produced the fewest first-half points in Final Four history. And Connecticut, a team that eclipsed 12 points inside of six minutes in each of its first five games in this tournament, headed to halftime on the wrong end of a 20-12 score.
It wasn't a performance for the ages. In fact, given how downright frightening the shooting was at times, it wasn't even a performance for all ages.
"I've never seen anything like it," Auriemma said. "There was a point in time where it looked like we may never score again. And that's what I felt like. I remember turning around one time and just staring at the bench and looking at the other coaches and just shaking my head, and this feeling of we're not going to score any more points."
Auriemma gained attention in San Antonio when it came to light he has carried a book of John Wooden's basketball teachings with him all season -- although he claimed after winning the title that he just put it in there for a September trip and never took it out. Of course, he's also a guy who knows his way around sentences with more bleeped-out words than his team had field goals in the first half. As it turned out, his halftime speech Tuesday night fell somewhere between the former's cerebral bent and the latter's famous fire.
Just as against Florida State in the regional final, when the Huskies played poorly in the first half, Auriemma didn't bring down the fire and brimstone. He hasn't done anything in that vein since, as junior Lorin Dixon recounted, he simply didn't go into the team's locker room at all during halftime of a sloppy Big East tournament final against West Virginia -- the ultimate sign of anger. When it comes to the season's final weekend, and a championship game in which he remains unbeaten in seven tries, nobody knows time and place better than Auriemma.
TALE OF TWO HALVES
UConn and star Maya Moore struggled offensively in the first half of the national title game against Stanford. But you don't win 78 games in a row without knowing how to come out hot in the second half. (Note: Tuesday's 12 first-half points were the fewest in a half in school history.)
|1st Half||2nd Half|
"The first thing you say is we couldn't play any worse and we're only down eight," associate coach Chris Dailey said of halftime. "Our defense was great; our offense was just nonexistent. We've never seen anything that looks like that before; we stood around. And he asked them if that was the way they were going to go out and that we had 20 more minutes."
There was strategy mixed in with the motivation. Throughout the first half, Stanford did what no team had ever done to Connecticut's offense in the previous 77 games -- render it effectively inoperative. Playing a sagging man-to-man defense that looked at times like a 2-3 zone or even a box-and-one, the Cardinal, and particularly Nnemkadi Ogwumike, locked down Maya Moore and left the rest of the Huskies alternately flat-footed or hoisting ill-advised shots from long distance.
As Ogwumike said after the game, her job shadowing Moore grew much more difficult in the second half, her path constantly blocked and altered by Connecticut picks.
"The second half, I thought we did a much better job screening for Maya, but also Maya doing a better job moving," Dailey said. "Because Nneka did a heck of a job in the first half; she really got into Maya and kept her from touching the ball and just was tremendous defensively in the first half."
And there's no getting around that everything that happened Tuesday night turned on a six-minute stretch soon after halftime in which Moore scored 11 points, assisted on another basket and lifted the Huskies from that eight-point deficit to a 27-22 lead. She drained 3-pointers, including the one that gave Connecticut the lead for good, but she also drove to the basket and finished with sweeping layups and hit pull-up, midrange jumpers. It was complete domination.
A day earlier, Auriemma credited his success in championship games to having the best player on the court. It was an even more prophetic statement than his contention that the first team to 50 would win.
"It is what great players do," Auriemma said. "And they do it at the most pressure-packed times. And that's what makes them who they are. That's what makes them great. Maya is a great scorer. And you get the reputation by scoring points under pressure. And she certainly did that."
But for all that, it wasn't just Moore. Freshman Kelly Faris managed to add a calming influence that belied her years and finished with seven rebounds, two steals and an assist. Frustrated by 3-point shots that wouldn't fall, Caroline Doty took the ball to the basket for a key layup to cap a 16-2 run to open the second half and didn't turn over the ball in 36 minutes. And Tina Charles, struggling to score, provided a defensive presence as good as the one Ogwumike offered in the first half -- a defensive effort Charles punctuated, in fact, by blocking Ogwumike's shot on back-to-back possessions during the run.
"Wow, I mean, I don't even know how to explain it," Faris said of Charles. "People might look and say, 'Oh, she didn't have a great offensive game,' but defensively, she had some major stops at some really pivotal moments. She had some great rebounds. And you know, from the outside in, it may not look that good, but when you're in the game and you're in the moment, those stops were huge for her and for us."
When Tuesday's game began, the only remaining question about Connecticut seemed to be how it would fare in a close game. How would a team that won 77 consecutive games by double digits fare if it found itself sweating out possessions late in a game? Never mind that there's a reason a team was mentally strong enough to win that many games in a row by those kind of scores.
"There's a toughness about this team that we might not give them enough credit for, but it showed again tonight," Dailey said.
Auriemma had an even simpler explanation for what happened after halftime Tuesday.
"We reacted exactly the way champions react," he said.
And they turned as poor a first half as could be imagined into the kind of perfection previously unimaginable.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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