Image: Jessica Hill/AP
“I’m so disappointed in Texas A & M for not showing up.”
“Stanford is better than that. Where were they?”
“Dayton should have been able to give UConn a game. Guess the 3 games in 3 days, caught up.”
All statements that have been spoken or overheard, this season, in the Connecticut media room at one point or another. So when exactly is the time that Connecticut is going to get credit for what they are doing to their competition and not what their competitors didn’t do?
Tuesday night with about 8 minutes left, during UConn’s 81-51 victory over TAMU all I could do is chuckle. It’s not supposed to be like this. UConn was not supposed to be up 30 points. Geno said, ‘This is the year to come and get us.’ But maybe, just maybe this Connecticut team is a little better than I (and Geno) have given them credit for. And perhaps all those teams that on paper have the pieces to potentially challenge UConn, have shown, even more dents in their armor.
However, it’s easy to forget to credit the Huskies with the way they dismantle teams to make people feel that way.
Texas A&M wouldn’t shoot 32.3% unguarded in layup lines. UConn guarded them to that percentage. Texas A&M wouldn’t have 20 turnovers playing in pick-up. Connecticut forced them. The Aggies don’t allow teams to shoot 51.6% from the field like the Huskies did. But UConn found a way. The Aggies force almost 25 turnovers per game. Connecticut was vigilant with the ball and only had 11 for the game.
Sensing a theme?
Those are basketball things which sometimes just don’t go your way. But I would argue that has little relevance on why UConn won against any of the aforementioned teams.
The answer is simple: they win because they will outwork you from dawn to dusk. If that doesn’t work they will play mercy with your basketball soul until it is black and blue and you are tapping out and asking for your mom and a drink of water. They triumph because, very simply, most teams aren’t willing to do the work it takes to get there and the Huskies are.
You need examples?
Kelsey Bone, former SEC Newcomer of the Year, had an entire year and offseason to get in basketball shape as she redshirted to play for TAMU. She was not hurt, injured or otherwise impaired. So tell me why 8 games into her junior year, she is still laboring to get up and down the court. In a comparable example, UConn center Stefanie Dolson needed one tough game against Stanford her freshman year to figure ‘this isn’t working’ and worked religiously with the staff to transform her mind and body, DURING THE SEASON.
Dolson wanted to be more effective for herself and her team and she made the sacrifices to get there. You might not be able to complete one post move because of ability but you darn well can control if you can make it to the paint to attempt the move.
“You can tell, right now we’re not ready for this type of competition,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “We’ll get better because of this. Don’t give up on us. We were not a whole lot better at this time last year. And we turned into a pretty good ballclub. We will do a better job of teaching. We lost our composure a little in the second half. But it’s all correctable.”
Coach Blair is a great coach – and an even more entertaining person to converse with about the game – but this should not be acceptable. I understand that you lost Danielle Adams and Sydney Colson to the WNBA but you are starting 2 juniors and 3 seniors and you’re the defending National Champion. You aren’t ready to compete at this level?
5 of UConn’s top 8 are freshman and sophomores. Do they look like they had to be taught how to compete or needed time to figure it out?
“You put on the uniform and learn from the coaching staff that we have here,” Caroline Doty said. “The program has had great, great leaders. We trust (the coaches) 100% to make us as good as we can be. We never doubt we will be prepared for anything, the hardest, toughest competition. So we give our all out of respect to Coach.”
I mentioned during the Buffalo game, that Doty has one good leg after 3 ACL tears and repairs, so tell me: why does she repeatedly beat players with 2 good legs down the floor, including in the TAMU game? That’s heart. That’s desire.
Image: Jessica Hill/AP
That same desire and heart is displayed on the defensive end.
If you look at UConn on the defensive end it’s as if they enjoy it. They smile more for when they steal it from you or take a charge than they do when they hit a wide open 3. They take as much joy in a forced shot clock violation as they do in a backdoor cut for a layup. This team enjoys the nitty gritty of the game because they understand that is what separated them from everyone else.
For example, during the Texas A&M game UConn was up 14 points in the first half. Freshmen Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis telegraphed a pass that was easily picked off. What does she do? She runs back down the court. Literally lays out, dives on the floor and steals the ball right back. That is accountability.
“This group doesn’t always do the right thing, but we compete pretty hard,” Auriemma said.
Texas A&M who is known for their defense and their pressure looked pedestrian. As if they only wanted to get through the 30 seconds to get the ball back to try to score. The urgency just didn’t appear, while UConn played like they were down 10 the entire game.
Do I think Texas A&M is 30 points worse than Connecticut on their best day? No. Not even close. But the mentality of these 2 programs at this time are. With a little more than 10 minutes left, it was a 20 point lead and the Aggies, the 7th ranked team in the nation, just flat out appeared to stop playing. Less than 4 minutes later, after layup lines, it was a 30 point lead and the only thing left to determine was when the student section was going to start the ‘warm up the bus’ chant.
“I think what happens when you’re willing to play at that pace for 40 minutes, I think the other team just kind of gets to the point where they just go, ‘I can’t keep this up.’ ” Auriemma said. “You can see it in their face sometimes and in their body language. It’s the one thing I’m most proud of. We keep that pace. There’s no getting tired, or going I don’t feel like it this possession. You try to make people keep up with us.”
The thing is, I’m not sure anyone can keep up.
“Defense is fun,” Kelly Faris said. “We take pride on the defensive end and taking things away. We are offended when people score on us. As the game goes along and you get stop after stop, that’s fun.”
This group is starting to develop a personality and identity. A toughness and blue-collar work ethic perhaps not seen since 1995 when UConn fought for every inch. This team just may have more talent to go with that toughness and spunk.
UConn still has the same weaknesses as before: They have suspect post depth. They are not a good rebounding team. Their guards can be susceptible to poor decisions. They have a heavy reliance to scoring points in transition and off of their press and sometimes they rely too heavily on jump shots both of which tends to slow down come conference and tournament games and they haven’t been on the road yet with any adversity.
But in the grand scheme of things, I am starting to believe that it doesn’t quite matter because there are maybe 5 teams in the country that can take advantage of these deficiencies and UConn has shown that no matter who is in the opposing jersey they will be relentless.
“The last team that I had that played mistake free basketball was in 2002,” said Auriemma. “They played hard and made no mistakes. Most teams do make mistakes and those mistakes usually come from inexperience or lack of maturity. You can make up for mistakes by how hard you compete for things.”
UConn had some of the best cover up make up last year in Maya Moore. This year it might be better. Put simply, their cover up is just out-working you. You saw it against Texas A&M. The same against Stanford and Dayton and Pacific. Ultimately, UConn operates on the following logic: ‘We may have more talent than you. We may be better than you. But we won’t take any chances. We will take it from you before you even knew it was up for grabs.’