Lack of depth catches up with UConn
INDIANAPOLIS -- Only when it finally became reality for 40 minutes did the all-too-common accusation that Connecticut was little more than Maya Moore and her acolytes finally and irrevocably meet its demise.
Notre Dame didn't beat a one-woman team. It beat Connecticut 72-63 by making it a one-woman team.
Unlike the only other game Connecticut lost after Moore's freshman season, a December loss at Stanford this season in which she scored 15 points, Connecticut's star played her role on Sunday. Moore finished with 36 points, far and away the most she scored in any of the four games the Huskies lost during her four college seasons. It wasn't her most efficient night, not with 14-of-30 shooting from the field and 3-of-7 shooting from the free throw line, but she did her part, including a barrage of late shots to pull her team within four points in the closing minutes.
Notre Dame threw all it could at her, mixing and matching Brittany Mallory's tenacity, Devereaux Peters' length and some zone when it made sense, but Moore still went out in her final game putting points on the scoreboard.
The problem was that while she couldn't outscore the Fighting Irish, she did outscore her teammates.
"I feel like she scored on me every time I guarded her," Peters offered with a respectful shake of her head. "She is great. It doesn't matter if you're in her face, if you have a hand up, if you tip the ball -- she's going to get her points. We really tried to focus on not letting her get 3s or at least have them contested. But even sometimes that wasn't working. She's going to get hers. And I think today, we didn't let everybody else get theirs. The other games, we let Kelly Faris get hers or Bria Hartley get hers. Today, we contained everybody else and just let her do her thing."
The first time the teams played, Faris scored 20 points, well beyond the defensive stopper's single-digit season average. The next time out, Hartley put up a career-best 29 points. And in the Big East tournament, just when it looked like Notre Dame might be within striking distance, Stefanie Dolson added the final touches to her 24-point effort. Sunday, those three combined for just 21 points. The rest of Connecticut's roster added just six more.
After losing Tina Charles to the WNBA after last season, a year after Renee Montgomery departed, the two-time defending champions were a team with just one proven star this season. But they were also a team with other potential stars, one or more of whom could rise to the occasion alongside Moore on a given night.
Just not this night.
And to that end, depth, that constant topic of conversation that was always sure to get under the Huskies' skin, finally took its toll. A frequent question from people unfamiliar with women's basketball throughout the tournament run was why the Huskies carried so few players on their roster and played fewer still -- essentially just six. But without veteran guard Caroline Doty, who missed the season with a knee injury after starting 38 games last season, and freshman Samarie Walker, who transferred to Kentucky after averaging 18.8 minutes through 17 games this season, the Huskies were what you saw when the game started, plus Lorin Dixon.
And while it wasn't that any of the six Huskies who saw the court when the game was still in doubt were too tired to stay with the Fighting Irish, there isn't much room for 19 fouls when you have only 24 to go around. That's especially true when the player in the most serious foul trouble, Dolson, was the team's lone true post player.
"Once we took Stefanie out, we just didn't have much of a presence physically inside, and they took advantage of that," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. "They drove the ball into the lane and forced us to make -- as Kelly said and Maya said, we made some mistakes defensively. And sometimes teams don't capitalize on your mistakes. But Notre Dame did tonight. The last three times we have played them, we may have made similar mistakes but they didn't make shots."
Notre Dame also made the most of missed shots with its size advantage. At halftime, Connecticut held a 17-15 rebounding edge. With Dolson out of commission for a good chunk of the second half and limited in how aggressive she could be when on the court, Notre Dame built a 24-10 rebounding edge in the second half.
Led by Skylar Diggins, a special player emerging as a superstar in her own right, and buoyed by the experience of three prior meetings, Notre Dame handed Connecticut just its fourth loss in the past four seasons -- and that only after the Huskies closed to within three points with 2:28 to play in the game. That is the harshest of measures by which to deem anything a failure. But this is Connecticut, and some or many might label it such.
That's not fair to Connecticut, and it's certainly not fair to the team that took the game from the champion on Sunday, but so it goes.
The Huskies were outplayed for a night by one of the best teams in the country, a team that saw the door of opportunity crack open and then kicked it down to finish the job. Auriemma's team will be back, without Moore but with another class of potential stars, a healthy Doty and wiser and more experienced versions of Dolson, Faris and Hartley. And while it might not be the prohibitive favorite, odds are it will be good enough to give itself a shot at playing deep into the postseason. And as Notre Dame and Texas A&M proved on Sunday, that's all that really matters.
What went wrong for Connecticut on Sunday night was that for 40 minutes it was the team it had been accused of being. And even Maya Moore couldn't change that.
"I'm going to think more about the best player in the history of the Big East and maybe the best student-athlete in the history of college basketball," Auriemma said. "And I'm not going to let her be defined by what happened tonight."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.