STORRS, Conn. -- Those women's basketball fans who tuned into Monday night's nationally televised opening weekend match-up between No. 1 Connecticut and No. 3 Stanford, already weary of the mismatched skirmishes that have too often come to characterize the sport's early weeks and looking for a real dogfight between the two powerhouses, had to have been sorely disappointed by the 76-57 rout that ensued. Still, it would be premature to anoint the reigning champs as the presumptive 2013-14 NCAA title winners, ship Geno Auriemma his 10th Werner ladder, and close the books on Stanford -- and for that matter, the rest of the pack -- for the season.
The second game each for two of the nation’s top teams should not have been expected to say all that much about next April, when both UConn and Stanford are certain to be contenders for top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Other than which of them would have an early loss on its record, however, this game was expected to present several interesting test points for the two teams. Chiney Ogwumike and Brianna Stewart are this season’s most mentioned Player-of-the-Year candidates. How would they perform head-to-head on the same court, and against great defenses? Amber Orrange is the much improved point guard for the Cardinal, while UConn starts little-tested sophomore Moriah Jefferson at point. Which guard would lead best, and control the game? While Stanford has its share of veterans, Ogwumike and Orrange among them, much of the roster is young, and two-thirds of the starting rotation are new to their roles. UConn, too, owns plenty of youth, but its core group bring experience, having been tested and found worthy at the pinnacle of the game last year. Who would learn the most from this game?
Following UConn’s 76-57 romp, the answers to some of these questions took shape. We learned a bit about what the season will look like for two of the game’s best teams. So what did we learn from this match-up?
✔ In the battle of the point guards, we learned that Amber Orrange has indeed come into her own. We also learned that UConn will likely have few problems at the point. With minimal help from any Cardinal not named Ogwumike, Orrange was a force, making mostly good decisions, and proving that a single defender will rarely contain her. For UConn, Jefferson not surprisingly showed her inexperience and the need for growth. Her unpolished play shifted the focus to Bria Hartley, an All-American as a sophomore point guard who had an inconsistent junior season in which she never fully overcame a high ankle sprain. After volunteering to come off the bench late last season, Hartley has returned to the starting lineup, where, as a senior, she is healthy, confident and mature. She scored 20 points on nine-of-13 shooting, adding eight rebounds and six assists with just one turnover. Orrange was only slightly less effective, but had much less help from her teammates. She finished with 22 points on eight-of-14 field-goal shooting and knocked down five free throws. But the Cardinal point guard had just one assist and four turnovers.
✔ Ogwumike easily outshone Stewart in the post. But UConn has some previously unrecognized talents in that department. Ogwumike performed much as advertised, turning in a 16-point, 13-rebound double-double (to go with an assist, a block and a steal, but four unfortunate turnovers. In contrast, the UConn sophomore played just four minutes before picking up her second foul and sitting out the rest of the first half. In the second half, she was ordinary, but far from great, exhibiting little of the greatness that saw her honored as MVP of the Final Four last season as a mere freshman. Stewart is an outstanding talent, but needs some maturity to realize her unbounded potential. “Stewie allowed those two fouls to affect her,” Coach Auriemma said after the game,“and she’s too good to let that happen, but it did. So that was a good [lesson].”
But when Stewart’s replacement Morgan Tuck also picked up her second foul at 11:38, it was time for UConn’s third option at center, junior Kiah Stokes to surprise the crowd, both benches, and Chiney Ogwumike. I have previously described Stokes as having a Karl Malone body and a Manute Bol skill set. Not on Monday night. In this game, on this stage, she was fully channeling Malone, with 13 rebounds, six blocks and 10 points. She was six-of-six from the line. She stymied Ogwumike, pushed her out of her comfort zone, even blocked two of her shots.
Connecticut's other post option Stephanie Dolson could not guard the Stanford center one on one. Stewart wasn’t allowed to try. Stokes managed it quite well. Auriemma was not shocked, but certainly was pleased. “Kiah played the best game she’s played,” he observed. “She was really, really good in just about every area. And I hope that’s the beginning of something, because if she plays like that it changes everything. In practice, she rebounds, blocks shots and plays pretty good defense. What I didn’t anticipate,” he continued, “was how aggressive she was on the offensive end, and how she was working the offensive boards.” If Stokes were to play that way consistently, UConn can mail the season in. Her size and strength will challenge any post player, and if she can produce offense as well, Connecticut becomes untouchable in the paint.
While that consistency is far from guaranteed, Stokes realizes that this game should be the first of many. “I knew I had to do something [with teammates in foul trouble], and not just drift around out there. This gives me a little confidence,” she added. “I want to be one of the players who [Coach Auriemma] can say ‘I’ll put her in because she can do it, not just because he has to send me in.” We learned that Stokes could be a force. Will she be? Hold that thought for a few months.
|Kiah Stokes, shown blocking the shot of Stanford's Mikaela Ruef, was a force off the UConn bench Monday, contributing a 10-point, 13-rebound double-double and icing the cake with six swats. (Photo by Steve Slade)|
✔ We also learned from this game that Stanford is a young, inexperienced team in need of some serious development. No question the Cardinal have talent, and are likely to be one of this season's top teams. But they might have been over-ranked in starting the season at No. 3. (They remain at No. 3 in this week's AP Poll, which came out before Monday night's game was played. The dropped to No. 5 in the Coaches' Poll, which came out afterward, indicating that despite the drubbing they received, most still recognize the potential.)
Orrange and Ogwumike were 14 of 30 for the night. The rest of the team was seven for 30. But four freshmen played significant minutes against the best team in the country, and lost the second half by just six points. And they are tall and active. They played good defense, demonstrating among other things that Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, for all her amazing shooting accuracy, has trouble creating her own shot when guarded by tall, quick players.
Coach Tara Vanderveer was optimistic about her youngsters after the game. “We played a lot of young people tonight,” she noted. “Our freshmen are just learning a system and I thought they just got better and better as the game went on. . . . I told our team it isn’t going to get any harder. This is as hard as it gets." But then she acknowledged what everyone watching the game in the arena or on TV could see first-hand: Orrange and Ogwumike will not get it done by themselves, at least not against the game's top competition. "We’re going to need contributions from somebody else,” VanDerveer observed, “whether it’s our freshmen or some of our older players who have missed time with injuries.”
✔ We learned that the officials are going to enforce the new hand-checking rules strictly. Auriemma’s take on it is far better than anything I could write: “There were a few calls that you would shake your head,” he observed, “but mostly the players were just dumb. The refs said ‘don’t put your hands on them,’ and then they go out and do it. The officials are going to be in a tough spot for a while, because every touch is not going to be like the next one. Some will be fouls, some won’t. But it will take a little bit of time, and I think by January players are going to adjust to it.”
Until they do, the new rules, and the rigor of their enforcement, is likely to slow the pace of games and make free-throw shooting a priority. But for his team, Auriemma said he did not mind the new rule. “I told them ‘you can either stay in your stance and stay in the game, or come out of it [and reach] and leave the game.’”
✔ Unfortunately, we also observed early in the contest that bane of nationally televised women’s games, a nearly scoreless defensive duel for an extended period. Stanford led 4-2 after nearly seven minutes of play, and you could practically hear the remote controls clicking all over America. Both teams finally reached double digits (that’s 12-10) only seconds before the ten-minute mark. UConn’s scoring leader at that point was freshman backup point guard Soniya Chong, who hit threes on consecutive possessions within a minute of entering the game.
Finally, coming out of the 12-minute timeout, UConn began to run its offense, and Orrange and Ogwumike valiantly tried to keep up, but with basically no offensive support from whichever other three Cardinal players happened to be on the court. Unless Ogwumike or Orrange were involved in the play, little happened for Stanford. Connecticut led 39-26 at the half. Both teams settled down a bit in the second half, a virtual draw, with Connecticut six points better than Stanford. Play was a bit more structured, and a few more players contributed. The most notable moment of that period was Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis crashing to the floor, screaming in pain and grabbing the elbow on her shooting arm. After several minutes, she left the game and did not return. Although nothing definitive was announced about the injury after the game, Mosqueda-Lewis was not taken to the hospital.
But that's when we got to see the most compelling, and perhaps unexpected, story of the game, which came not from the acknowledged stars, but from the UConn bench.
✔ We learned that UConn has a lot more depth than most had given it credit for. Nobody questions the Huskies' talent -- their all but unanimous selection as preseason No. 1 in both polls is ample proof of that. But Auriemma did not go very deep into his rotation last season, leaving this year's bench largely untested and creating some doubts as to this team's ability to survive injury or foul problems for its key players.
But Monday night, UConn showed that the bench, especially Stokes, Morgan Tuck and Soniya Chong, could contribute against top competition. For its part, Stanford demonstrated the excellence of its two stars, and the potential for significant improvement from the inexperienced supporting cast.
For both coaches, Monday night showed exactly why the best-of-the-best are willing to schedule a competitive early-season game despite the potential for a blemish on their records.
Auriemma: “This game probably went exactly as you would want it to go. We played great at times, we played lousy at times, and we beat a pretty good team and basically controlled the game for the second half.”
Vanderveer: “The goal is to grow from this experience because this is the standard –- UConn -- and then try to learn from that experience. . . . I think this game can be a real positive for our team. Both from the positives, and from the lesson: this is how the best team plays, and just internalize it and get better from it.”
Overall, we learned that UConn and Stanford will be very good this season. UConn proved it can win without one of its star in the first half and without another in the second half. Stanford learned that its two leaders can carry the team through the bulk of its schedule until some support starts coming from their teammates. That’s about all a game this early in the season can offer.
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