With Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, his players and the reporters who cover the team talking about how “something has changed” since the Big East championship loss against Notre Dame, it is hard not to hear echoes of years past.
In 2003, fresh off an undefeated season that included winning the national championship in San Antonio, UConn’s Diana Taurasi, supported by unheralded veterans and a quartet of freshmen, managed to put together an unexpected winning streak that took them to the Big East finals where they faced Villanova.
The game seemed to be in hand and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. To everyone’s stunned surprise, the team lost – the game, the championship, the undefeated winning streak and, it seemed, confidence. Many wondered if the team could recover for the NCAAs.
After the loss, the team talked long and hard. Recalled then freshman Ann Strother, Auriemma said "that he felt that he had been treating us like last year’s team, and this year’s team was different. He started to realize that, and wanted us to know that he knew we weren't like last year’s team, that we were going to win in a different way than last year’s team won."
Auriemma changed, and the team responded by winning a second consecutive championship.
No, the comparison to this year’s Husky squad is not an exact one, but clearly, whatever has changed for this squad needs to stick if it has any hope of defeating the newest archrival, Notre Dame, and capturing a record-tying eighth national championship.
Of course, it seems odd to review a 33-4 season and wonder how things could be better, and call a team inconsistent, but “inconsistent” is a fair assessment of the Connecticut squad as a whole, not so much on defense, which one might expect, but on offense – and especially in the three losses against the Irish. Injuries, minor and major, as well as poor practice habits, have kept most every player off the court at one time or another. That has impacted confidence, chemistry and trust -- and when we talk about trust that goes beyond the intellectual and down into the instinctual, eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head, bone-deep. The kind of trust that helps makes offense fluid, potent, and occasionally jaw-dropping.
Whatever has happened since the Big East tournament – personal epiphanies, rediscoveries, or the simple of matter of the necessary amount of time has passed for the players to get used to each other – the NCAA tournament has seen the resurgence of the Connecticut offense by both addition and subtraction.
Things to expect:
This year, Connecticut’s rocks have been sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and junior Stefanie Dolson. Mosqueda-Lewis has been unspectacularly spectacular – I mean, what guard shoots 52% from the field (and 48.9% on 3-pointers)? There’s been a little drop-off on her three-point shooting, but she has expanded her repertoire to include post moves and a bump-resistant drive to the basket.
Since arriving on campus, Dolson has transformed her body and game to the point that Auriemma has said their offense “runs through her.” Unfortunately, Dolson is hobbled by both a stress fracture and plantar fascitis. So while her heart, and pain threshold, is huge, her inability to push off may reduce minutes and transform her role of scorer to distributor (she’s an outstanding passer) and rebounder (she managed 11 against Kentucky).
Things that have appeared:
Fortunately, for Connecticut, the “real” Breanna Stewart has emerged, or, perhaps more accurately, re-emerged. Said Auriemma, "Fear is not part of Stewie's makeup as much. There was a fear of not being able to live up to other people's expectations of her, not living up to her own expectations. I do think she was all of a sudden overwhelmed by, 'What if I'm not good enough?' Her mind went to a bad place.
"Once the season ended, the air came out of her balloon and it was ‘OK, let's start over.’ Now we're seeing the Breanna we all know existed."
Which means playing like a possessed string bean. Her on-court time has gone up almost 10 more minutes a game, and so has her production. In the NCAA tourney, Stewart is averaging 17.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 30.3 minutes a game. On offense, she’s shooting threes and driving like a guard, but also figured out how to handle physical play in the paint. On defense, her spectacular wingspan (71 inches) has disrupted and disheartened opponents.
While Stewart’s performance in the tournament has been more a relief, it’s her fellow freshman Moriah Jefferson who has been the surprise. Consider that, in her three games against Notre Dame, the freshman point guard up the following numbers:
4 minutes, no assists, two points
7 minutes, no assists, no points
5 minutes, no assists, no points.
Contrast those numbers with her NCAA tournament averages: 23 minutes, 9.5 points, 2 assists. Not only will her added offense against Notre Dame be essential, her ridiculous speed on both sides of the ball should help Connecticut avoid Notre Dame’s harassing offense.
Things to keep an eye on:
Turnovers. UConn has been unusually turnover-prone this season. If Connecticut wants to finally defeat Notre Dame, the Huskies cannot give up offensive possessions to the Irish’s opportunistic defense. This means playing within themselves, not getting greedy, and expanding their court vision when passing.
Free throws: Notre Dame has turned earning trips to the line an art form. UConn’s healthier bench means it can absorb more fouls, but quicker feet on defense should help prevent them.
Someone who may surprise:
Morgan Tuck: Perhaps the least ballyhooed of the freshman, the 6-2 post player is finally healthy again. Not only can she provide much-needed heft in the paint on the offensive and defensive ends, she is a comfortable shooting the three, making her a tough and perhaps unexpected, matchup (she only played five minutes in the Big East championship game).
Bria Hartley (guard): An All-American last year, Hartley will be the first to admit she’s had a disappointing season. Plagued with injuries and confidence-killing shooting slumps, she has struggled to find her role on the team. Against Kentucky, she played hard-nosed defense and did an excellent job of handling the Wildcat’s vaunted press. Connecticut will need her poise to get them across half court against Notre Dame’s tough pressure defense.
Mental toughness. The Huskies and Notre Dame have faced off three times this season, and each game ended up as a draining, sptrit-breaking loss for UConn. Can this newfound confidence and sense of “team” help overcome the memories of those losses – and the mental lapses that contributed to them?
All of which means that this fourth matchup has all the potential to be one of those games that people remember for years after. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
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