For ten minutes, this looked like a sloppy but competitive contest. The two teams were 0-8 from the field before Maya Moore scored the game's first points at 17:22.
But Connecticut went on a typical 30-7 (and 20-2) run to close the half and put the game out of reach of a Rutgers team that did not shoot very well. The Knights failed to score a point for 4:58. Score at the half : 40-15, the fourth time in five games that UConn held its opponent to under 20 points in the first half.
This was the 59th straight win for the Huskies. I thought the way the game started out ... I thought they were much more aggressive than we were, Coach Geno Auriemma commented on the first five minutes before UConn launched its opening run. Kalana Greene observed that the team was rushing on offense during that period. Once we got our rhythm back, she added, it was hard for them to handle us.
Heading Into the Game: UConn 81, Duke 48;
UConn 74, Villanova 35
Before further dissecting the damage against Rutgers, let's talk about last week's game at Duke: The Blue Devils had the formula for beating Connecticut. They are athletic enough to match the Huskies' quickness, the first team to do so this season. And they were tall enough to challenge in the paint, which they shut down successfully. As everyone knows, you want to dare the Huskies to shoot threes, which they have done very poorly often this season. For Duke, the strategy might have worked well. The problem was that the Huskies proceeded to hit 13 threes. End of Duke, 81-48. But the Blue Devils are a very good team, and should go far. Maybe they even meet UConn again in the postseason, with fewer made threes.
Villanova was next. And can easily be forgotten. This was a no-contest from the start, worse even than anticipated, as the Wildcats' injuries have crippled an already young team. 74-35, and that close only because Geno Auriemma won't run up the score, especially versus his close friend, Harry Perretta.
Back to Rutgers.
The second half was also very sloppy, and it seemed as though someone had told the referees to call everything, after calling very little in the first half. At one point, Rutgers led 4-8, for the half. UConn seemed to have forgotten how quick the Scarlet Knights were, and turned the ball over five times in the first eight minutes of the second period. They had just four turnovers in the entire first stanza. By 11:32, UConn had remembered, and the score was 57-26.
Play of the game: Steal by Kalana Greene, who dribbles full court, with two Rutgers guards leading her, then blows right between them for a layup. Dribbling, she outran the Scarlet Knight guards. Gone are the days when Rutgers was more athletic! The Scarlet Knights have a long way to go. Against Connecticut's starters, they shot under 25 percent from the field, while allowing the Huskies to shoot over 50 percent. They just don't shoot very well, except for Brittany Ray, whom UConn limited to just three points, 13.6 below her season average.
What Have We seen in these three games? The reemergence of Lorin Dixon as a major contributor. Auriemma said on his TV show that the Huskies have only two players who can defend one-on-one (despite having the best defense in the country): Lorin Dixon and freshman Kelly Faris. A tribute both to those players, and to the remarkable communication skills of the regular defenders. At least once a game, we have seen Dixon steal the ball from behind with her amazing speed.
We have also seen that this Husky team will find a way to win, and win big, even when the opponent does exactly what they had planned to do. We have seen that Duke can be dangerous if they shoot just a little better (and UConn shoots a lot worse). And we have seen that, despite the gross disparity in final margins, Auriemma will not intentionally run up the score. Even against Rutgers, the starters were removed at 5:20. We've seen UConn miss about a dozen two-footers and still win by thirty.
Regrettably, we have also seen April Sykes of Rutgers unnecessarily throw Lorin Dixon to the ground, down 35 and with 20 seconds left, a sad reminder of the Rutgers' reputation for thuggery from the past.
The Connecticut defense continues to be outstanding. But never complacent. We're upset they got 36, Kalana Greene claimed. We really get upset when people score. We're that competitive, she added. We want to hold the next team under thirty-six. That team is Pittsburgh, a miserable 1-5 in the league. How must that comment make the Panthers feel?
Asked what has surprised him about his team this season, Auriemma had two reactions. I'm surprised that we're so good on defense, he said. And how mature we are has surprised me a little bit. When you lose Renee Montgomery, whose personality dominated this team, he continued, you're not sure if anyone will show that maturity when she leaves."
"I think that Saturday-Monday [against Notre Dame, then Duke] meant a lot," Auriemma added. "They came out of that thinking, 'We can handle this.'
Later, asked if he was happy, the coach responded, You can win and not like your team, and you can like your team and lose. I'm lucky right now: We're winning, and I really like the guys we have.
Husky Nation feels the same. And the horizon does not seem to have any dangerous storm clouds.
At least in the immediate future. Tennessee is getting better and better, and maybe they will challenge the Huskies when they meet in the Final Four. The Vols are very tall, very athletic, and seem to be learning to defend. They have a few great shooters, who are getting more consistent. They will certainly be set up in a bracket opposite Connecticut. We can hope. Because it doesn't look like anybody else will challenge UConn until San Antonio.
And on the international front ...
Meanwhile, donning his USA Basketball head coaching cap, Auriemma is slated to travel down to Uncasville Wednesday for a "major announcement" with WNBA president Donna Orender at the Mohegan Sun. The pair, joined by Connecticut Sun CEO Mitchell Etess and General Manager Chris Sienko are expected to announce that the core group of USA Basketball's Women's Senior National Team (plus a handful of extras to be named later) will take on the 2010 WNBA All Stars in preparation for the upcoming Women's World Championships. In the past, the All Star game has been handled differently in World Championship and Olympic years. At times, the All Star game has been canceled altogether and at other times, a sort of "B-list" of All Stars (most of the "A List," other than international players, having already been named to the U.S. national team), has played an exhibition game against the U.S. squad.