STORRS, Conn. – The virtual room where the great ones who have played the game of women’s basketball here at the University of Connecticut reside got a little more crowded Monday night on the heels of a royal proclamation by Huskies Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma.
Senior Kelly Faris received what can be considered equivalent to a knighting from Auriemma to join the round table of Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Rebecca Lobo, Tina Charles and several others for her performance that enabled the No. 3 ranked Huskies to dislodge No. 4 Duke 79-49 at Gampel Pavilion in front of a delirious near-sellout crowd of 9,687 and make the Blue Devils the last Division I women’s or men’s team to fall from the ranks of the unbeaten this season.
“If you were part of what Kelly Faris did tonight, you were part of something that people will be talking about for a long time,” said Auriemma, who coached an Olympic squad containing six of his former great ones to a gold medal in London last summer.
“There have been a lot of great players and legends play in this building wearing the Connecticut uniform,” continued Auriemma, whose seven NCAA titles is just one short of Tennessee coach emeritus Pat Summitt’s collection. “But I don’t know if anyone has ever represented themselves, their family, and the University of Connecticut the way Kelly did tonight.
“I know there’s a lot of players out there that are really good … there’s a lot of All-Americans but man oh man, that was one for the ages right there.”
So there you have it.
Faris, a 5-foot-11 senior guard from the town of Plainfield in basketball rich Indiana, had a stat line showing 18 points, 12 rebounds, 6-for-10 from the field, including a three-pointer, 5-for-7 from the line, six assists, a pair of steals, and, oh yeah, three of the 15 turnovers the Huskies (17-1) committed, her miscuses occurring all in the first half when UConn committed 12 giveaways.
When Faris’ work was done, she had 11 points and eight rebounds in the second half when the Huskies transformed a tightly contested contest into a rout, Auriemma embraced her with a huge hug for her play against the Blue Devils (16-1), who could run into UConn again in March somewhere deep on the NCAA tournament trail.
Even Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie offered praise in Faris’ direction after suffering the latest shellacking from UConn in their long-running intersectional series that one day in the future could become a conference rivalry if the ACC ever decides to snatch the Huskies from what will be left of the Big East.
“She’s really a special player,” McCallie said. “When you look at that stat line, 12 rebounds, we don’t have anybody that gets 12 rebounds.
“Twelve rebounds, six assists, 18 points, two steals – she plays like a senior. She plays with good experience and is a great example to a lot of young kids that you don’t have to have awesome size in order to get the job done,” the Duke coach added.
“A lot of kids probably wonder if they can play at this level. I think she is 5-foot-11, maybe 5-foot-10, but the reality is that she gets the job done. She hustles and she plays very, very hard and she plays unaffected. I thought she was just great for her team tonight.”
The contest had a slew of players from both sides who have won gold medals on USA squads in international competition, but who were basically playing second fiddle to Faris’ bolt to the spotlight.
Based on conversations with WNBA coaches, by the way, Farris’ stock has been rising through the season. She’s been leading the NCAA in assists/turnover ratio.
Kalena Mosqueda-Lewis on Connecticut was the actual game-high scorer with 21 points, while rookie sensation Breanna Stewart on the Huskies scored 13 points, but Stefanie Dolson, the 6-5 junior center whose game has matured this season, only scored six points primarily because she was saddled with foul trouble.
In fact, just after Dolson scored to make it 43-35 as the Huskies began to pull away, seconds later with 16 minutes, 15 seconds left in the game, she was hit with her fourth foul causing outrage from Auriemma toward referee Bonita Spence.
Auriemma, however, sent an apology to Spence during his postgame press conference, saying that Dolson did foul.
But he had reason to be concerned as the rest of UConn nation because Dolson had been on a tear recently – she was to be named the national player of the week by the USBWA sportswriters – and the way the Blue Devils had competed, perhaps the Huskies could be in danger of losing their second straight game in Gampel for the first time in 20 years.
UConn’s last appearance here at the start of the month was the one-point loss to Notre Dame in the first of two Big East contests, if not more, with the Irish.
Instead of disaster with Dolson on the bench, following a shot from Duke’s Elizabeth Williams, last season’s national rookie sensation, the Huskies bolted to a 13-0 run to put the game out of reach.
“When (Dolson) came out of the game, if the game was playing like it was in the first half, it would’ve been a problem,” Auriemma said.
“Stewart finally started making a couple of plays and we really didn’t miss Stefanie that much and that’s what we are going to need. We can’t rely on Stefanie night in and night out every single day,” Auriemma observed.
“There’s going to be nights like tonight where we need people to step up and tonight they did … every single one of them.”
Faris also spoke of the multiple threats coming from her teammates.
“I don’t think we have one specific leader,” she said. “I think we have a lot of different types of leaders. I think tonight we showed as a team how we feed off of each other and how much that can help us to accomplish what we need to do.
“I told the team in the locker room that it’s so much more fun when we play like that in the second half. We all felt it. Everyone in the gym felt it. It was just something different and something fresh.”
As far as expanding on the 32-30 advantage to transform the final 20 minutes into a 47-19 blowout, Faris said, “I think it was just a lot of frustration of how we’ve been playing the last few games with the turnovers.
“We came in at halftime and it was 12-3 in terms of turnovers. We know how much we can do, we’ve done it before. It’s a matter of us just buckling down and mentally just bringing the energy.”
As a team, the Huskies dominated the boards 44-25, leading to 32-20 inside the paint, 14-6 on second chance points, and in transition a 20-10 advantage.
Depth was a key also with UConn’s bench outscoring the Blue Devils reserves 23-9.
Duke freshman Alexis Jones had a career-high 14 points but All-America candidate Chelsea Gray scored just two points while Williams and Haley Peters scored 11 each.
On one hand, considering Duke’s weak schedule – 131 on one SOS ranking compared to single-digit strengths for UConn, Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame – it was felt coming in the Blue Devils may have been fortunate to still be unbeaten but that they could have their hands full again.
McCallie agreed that stronger opponents would have made her team better prepared but explained, “It’s not as easy as you think. Some teams won’t play you, refuse to play you. And some teams say come play us, but we’re not going to return.
“So it’s not as easy as you think, unless we could get some help, maybe, from ESPN.
However, to everyone’s surprise, in part because of UConn’s ball-handling problems, the Blue Devils stayed in the game the entire first half with the prospect looming of another close finish here among top-5 opponents as had occurred when Notre Dame came to visit to continue its recent domination of UConn.
But then the Huskies did their thing against Duke to win their sixth straight and ninth out of 12 in the series, which actually would be one more triumph except for the three-pointer at the buzzer back at nearby Hartford in the last decade.
“This is exactly how we’ve been playing all year,” McCallie said. “It was consistent and more of the same. We’ve played some great 20 minute ball but we’ve been pretty much non-existent for 40 minute ball.
Give credit to UConn. They played really well in the second half, Kelly Farris in particular. There were some great lessons to be learned from this.”