- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The damage that Connecticut can do defensively isn't anything close to a secret. The Huskies have been putting the clamps on some very good teams for a very long time.
But knowing it and doing something about it are two different things.
The Stanford Cardinal didn't need a 75-56 loss in the national semifinals on Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena to clue them in to the problem. They were aware of it going into the game and, sure enough, it manifested itself midway through the first half, putting the brakes on what had been an inspired opening stretch from Stanford.
Stanford got off to a great start in the game, led 22-16 with 12:32 to play in the first half and held Connecticut to a deficit longer than any team had done all season.
And then Huskies coach Geno Aureimma brought junior Kiah Stokes off the bench and into the game, and the complexion changed.
Suddenly his tentative and slightly off-balanced team got bigger and better. The Huskies were more able to keep Cardinal star Chiney Ogwumike from hurting them in the paint and on the glass. Stokes' presence inside allowed Connecticut to move national player of the year Breanna Stewart out to the wing to guard one of Stanford's shooters, to use her length and reach to limit their ability to hit damaging 3-pointers, which was one of Auriemma's musts in the game.
"When we went with the bigger lineup, we had a few more options defensively," Auriemma said. "Their whole team can make seven, eight, nine, 10 in a row. So that was part of my game plan. Doesn't matter how many 2s they get. But we've got to limit the 3s and the free throws. I thought we did a great job of both of those things."
Connecticut quickly grabbed the momentum after Stokes came in with 9:15 to go before the break, running off a 28-5 stretch that bridged the two halves. The Huskies quickly built a double-digit lead just a few minutes into in the second half and set the stage for the win and the historic matchup with fellow unbeaten Notre Dame for the NCAA title.
Stokes was not the only defensive difference-maker. Moriah Jefferson also finished the game with five steals for Connecticut.
"Our defense is what won us the game," Jefferson said. "I think we were trying to swarm them a lot and just try to get them out of their rhythm."
Connecticut center Stefanie Dolson said having Stokes in the lineup was a key to the win.
"We used our size advantage," Connecticut center Stefanie Dolson said. "We realized how much we could score on them inside and the rebounding was great as well.
"We did to them almost what they did to us to start. We got into the passing lanes and the guards had to take tougher shots, and we made it a lot more difficult for them to score the basketball."
Stanford struggled to run its offense after building a 22-16 lead with a fast pace, good ball movement and some big rebounds.
But Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer admitted that she saw her team suddenly slow down in a way that just wasn't going to play against the Huskies.
"We knew that probably the biggest challenge for us would be to score," VanDerveer said. "Their size, when they went big, was really disruptive. We really struggled. They got in passing lanes and our pace was not fast enough. We weren't attacking and being aggressive. We would have little spurts of things and then they've come back and we could not sustain any runs."
Connecticut is perhaps the best defensive team in the country, a fact that sometimes gets lost in the bevy of productive offensive players.
"It's what our defense does," Connecticut guard Bria Hartley said. "We make it tough for them to score and we were able to create offense off of that."
Ogwumike closed her record-setting college career on a disappointing note, with 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the floor and 10 rebounds. It was a successful statistical night for almost anyone else, but this time the success belonged to Connecticut for slowing her, pushing her out of the paint and forcing her to both miss under the basket and shoot from the perimeter more often than she would have liked.
"I could have been more aggressive in the first half, but it is what it is, right?" Ogwumike said. "If we handled things a little bit better -- they forced me to do things I really didn't do a lot this year, but I had been working on it."
Stokes, who will assume some major minutes inside with Dolson's graduation after Tuesday's game, hasn't always had Auriemma's trust. He has harped on her about her consistency since she arrived, about the imperative of putting together strong efforts in practice and in games.
"But we [trust her] now and we are not afraid to put her out there in big moments," Auriemma said. "That's the best game she's ever played, I think, since she came to Connecticut."
Stokes, who was 4-for-4 from the floor and finished with nine points, also knows she has earned Auriemma's faith.
"He knows that I can come in and be a defensive presence, and he expects me to get stops and with a bigger lineup we get more rebounds, more blocks," Stokes said. "I know he's gained a little more trust in me. Maybe not the whole season, but at least part of it. That's definitely different from the past. In previous years, he would never know what he could get from me, but I've been trying to work hard to stay consistent and I think it's paying off."