UConn 83, Duke 61: Same song, seventh verse

December 18, 2013 - 12:59am
She's back! In her first game back in action since suffering a painful nerve contusion to the elbow of her shooting arm, Kaleena-Mosqueda came off the bench with a career-high seven three-pointers Tuesday to help No. 1 Connecticut to an 83-61 beat-down of No. 2 Duke. (File photo courtesy UConn Athletic Communications)

She's back! In her first game back in action since suffering a painful nerve contusion to the elbow of her shooting arm, Kaleena-Mosqueda came off the bench with a career-high seven three-pointers Tuesday to help No. 1 Connecticut to an 83-61 beat-down of No. 2 Duke. (File photo courtesy UConn Athletic Communications)

Connecticut 83, Duke 61

DURHAM, N.C. -- Well before tipoff in Tuesday night's No. 1-v.-No. 2 Jimmy V Classic matchup, I figured UConn would beat Duke by around 20 points or so. So the game's 83-61 final result came as no surprise. There's no question that UConn has had Duke's number in the Joanne P. McCallie era in Durham, and there's one overarching reason for a supremacy that has seen the Huskies emerge the victors -- often in embarrassing routs -- in what is now the last seven meetings between these two women's basketball powers.

What UConn does best, particularly this year's crop of players, is pass the ball. Geno Auriemma noted that he prefers not to recruit players who aren't great passers, and it shows. He frequently gets the top recruits in the country to come to Storrs, and he gets those players to pass the rock without regard to ego or who tops the scoring column in the box score.  On Tuesday night the Huskies passed. Then they passed again. Then they passed some more. By night's end, they had racked up 25 assists on their 30 made field goals for a jaw-dropping 83.3 percent assist rate. And pretty much every player in UConn blue got into the act: Every player who saw more than eight minutes on the floor logged at least one assist, with center Stefanie Dolson's six dimes just one behind point guard Moriah Jefferson's seven for the game high. Not all of their passes were right on the mark; UConn also tallied 14 turnovers, but that still left them with close to a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

In contrast, the Blue Devils collectively handed out 13 dishes on their 27 makes for a 48.1-percent assist rate -- not bad, but not UConn. They coughed up as many turnovers as they passed out assists, and only Alexis Jones, who finished with four assists, registered more than two.

Connecticut is an unquestionably talented team -- especially with All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and forward Morgan Tuck back in action. But as Geno Auriemma would be the first to admit, they are not a perfect team. In fact, Auriemma noted that his squad lacks a player who can break down an opponent consistently with dribble penetration the way that Duke's Chelsea Gray can.

However, teams that space the floor, reverse the ball and patiently find the open shooter have been giving Duke fits all season. The Blue Devils have allowed teams to shoot 33 percent from three-point range this year, and that's simply due to a lack of communication on the defensive end. Duke does a lot of things well on defense: They pressure the ball with ferocity; they flood passing lanes with tips and deflections; they cause havoc with their length; and they defend the rim extremely well. However, against teams that reverse the ball to find the open shooter, that lack of communication has left their help-and-recover defense a step slow on a consistent basis. Until Tuesday night, none of the Blue Devils' opponents have had the combination of talent and discipline necessary to fully exploit that weakness and send Duke down to defeat. Connecticut had both, and they had them in spades.

Chelsea Gray gets past Dolson
Connecticut's Geno Auriemma praised Chelsea Gray's ability to consistently break down opponents with dribble penetration, but on Tuesday, the Blue Devils too often settled for jump shots. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography)

Given the history and tendencies of both teams, it would have taken a massive meltdown by UConn and a clean, error-free game on offense by Duke for the Blue Devils to reverse their losing streak against the Huskies and pull out the win. But there was no Husky meltdown in the offing.

In the early going, Breanna Stewart knocked down a number of tough shots despite the swarm of Blue Devil defenders in her face. At certain points in the opening period, it looked like Stewart, who ended the half with 15 points and finished the night with a game-high 24, might singlehandedly outscore the entire Duke starting five. On the other side of the ball, UConn once again smartly cut off the connection between Duke's guards and its post players, effectively turning the Blue Devils into a jump-shooting team for a 10-minute stretch. And unlike their meeting at Gampel Pavilion last January, when despite the humiliating 79-49 final, the Blue Devils at least made it a game for the first 20 minutes, on Tuesday, once the Huskies got their wheels in motion, things very quickly went south for the home team.  Every time UConn made a shot during the Huskies' 26-4 first-half run, it put even more pressure on the Duke players to match them, which resulted in a lot of one-dribble hero-shots from long range.

Duke never quit, but after spotting the Huskies a 15-point (41-26) first-half lead, they were never able to pull any closer than 13 points down. Chelsea Gray gave it a go, leading the Blue Devils with 13 points on six-of-11 from the field, but came up empty (0-2) from beyond the arc. After being pretty much MIA in the first half, Alexis Jones knocked down a couple of nice shots that breathed a bit of life into the crowd in the second stanza. A few moments of supreme effort allowed Duke to put together a couple of mini-runs. But each time Duke threatened to make a game of it, the Huskies quickly regained their composure, knocking down clutch threes and making hustle plays to regain the momentum. Indeed, the play of the game came when Duke closed to 65-52 with just under eight minutes to go in the second half. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, returning from an injury to the elbow of her shooting arm that has kept her out of action for the past month, missed an attempt from three-point range. Stewart scooped up the rebound and kicked it back out to the perimeter, where this time Mosqueda-Lewis cooly drained the trey. That shot seemed to be the knockout punch, as the Huskies took off on a 14-0 run that took the wind out of Duke's sails for good.

If Stewart was the story of the first half, Mosqueda-Lewis was the story of the second. Prior to tip, it had been unclear how many minutes Mosqueda-Lewis would even play in this game; her practices leading up to the contest had not been very good. But UConn boasts several "big-game" players and Mosqueda-Lewis is one of them. Though sporting a protective brace on her injured elbow, her shot seemed not to have suffered in the least. Despite coming off the bench, Mosqueda-Lewis finished her first game back with 21 points, on a career-high seven threes, most of them wide open. Each of the Husky sharpshooter's bombs seemed to fall at exactly the right time, breaking up a nascent Duke run or launching a big UConn spurt.  Auriemma noted that the adrenaline of the game had given the Husky star a big boost, but the fact that a Duke defender was rarely within five feet of one of the deadliest shooters in the country certainly didn't hurt her cause.

Duke is a better team than they looked like on Tuesday, but across the board, UConn just made all the little plays at all the right times. The Huskies turned 11 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points, compared to just four for Duke, which is typically one of the nation's strongest rebounding teams. The Huskies went an astounding 12-24 from three, compared to just 4-18 for Duke, who came into the game as one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. The UConn defense has the ability to make what other teams usually do with ease much harder, and that's precisely what happened on Tuesday night. Duke is used to getting offense from its defense, but it wasn't until the second half that the Blue Devils were able to generate points off turnovers. Chelsea Gray is used to driving and finding her teammates for scores, but the Huskies' help-and-recover defense is every bit as sound as their communication is on offense. UConn knew Duke's tendencies and the Husky defenders were  consistently able to get to the spot ahead of the Blue Devil players. When forced to score on one-on-one moves, the tall, long Devils struggled against a team with excellent size and length of its own. Throw in the great speed of UConn players like Bria Hartley and the gritty Moriah Jefferson and the skills of Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson, and UConn has a remarkably balanced lineup that's capable of playing and neutralizing nearly any style of play. Connecticut's perceived weakness coming into the game was its lack of depth, but with the return of Mosqueda-Lewis and forward Morgan Tuck, UConn now has a fully-stocked roster.

As for Duke, coming out on the losing end of yet another Husky rout highlighted some serious concerns that must be addressed. The team must improve its communication on defense or they won't be able to defeat elite ACC opponents like Notre Dame, Maryland and UNC. Elizabeth Williams has yet to regain the form that made her the National Freshman of the Year two seasons ago. Indeed, she played better last season when she was injured than she appears to be doing right now. Duke wants to make Williams its centerpiece player, and she has the talent to do so, but the Devils need to find a way to make things easier for her while getting a smarter level of performance from her. She has yet to develop a counter move and still hasn't learned to pass quickly out of the many double-teams that she routinely draws, and despite her talent and athleticism, those shortcomings are making her far too simple to guard.

Still, this season is a long way from over for Duke. On the bright side, there aren't many teams in the country that have the combination of scoring, chemistry, size and shooting as UConn. The Blue Devils will have another chance to prove that they belong among the nation's elite teams when they take on against No. 5/6 Kentucky (11-0) on Sunday.