Beginning its defense of its 2013 national championship at home in Storrs, Conn., on Sunday, the top-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies shook off a slow start to cruise to the predicatable win over the Lincoln Regional's 16-seed, Prairie View A&M, 87-44. The undercard was the more exciting event of the day, as, in a typically competitve 8-versus-9-seed game, Saint Joseph's, the nine-seed, knocked out eighth-seeded Georgia, 67-57, to advance to the second round. Their reward for that success will be a shot at Connecticut, the one team in the tournament no one wants to face before the national title game, in the second round.
LINCOLN REGIONAL – STORRS, CONNECTICUT POD
GAMPEL PAVILION, UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT
Round One: Sunday, March 23
Game One: (9) St. Joseph’s 67, (8) Georgia 57
Saint Joseph’s used three-point accuracy from Erin Shields, good defense and an organized half-court game to take an early lead over Georgia and hold it throughout the first half. Georgia’s guards spent lots of time dribbling deep into the shot clock, leading to too many forced field goals. The Bulldogs shot just 35 percent for the first half, while the Hawks hit half of their attempts. Krista Donald carried Georgia with 9 points and seven rebounds. Shields scored 14 points on 5-9 shooting, including four threes in the opening half.
Georgia adjusted in the second half, focusing on getting the ball into the paint to Merritt Hempe, whom the smaller Hawk posts had trouble guarding. Much more aggressive rebounding and drives to the hoop helped the Bulldogs close to within one at 12:00. They tied the score for the first time shortly thereafter on free throws following St. Joseph’s seventh foul of the half.
At the same time, the Hawks offense was less organized, as they missed shots they were making in the first half. Georgia blanketed Shields, holding her to just four points in the second frame, and it took Saint Joseph’s more than 10 minutes to regroup. The offense shifted to wing Natasha Cloud and forward Ashley Robinson, who combined for 17 second-half points. At the same time, the Hawks defense tightened, cutting off the post game that had brought Georgia back into the game. St. Joe’s renewed precision allowed the Hawks to pull ahead again by six at the eight minute timeout and steadily extend the lead to as many as twelve before winning 67-57.
Observers found it odd that Georgia, down just eight with two minutes left, Georgia did not foul, even though the Hawks had shot just 57 percent from the line in the first half (they finished at 71 percent). Coach Andy Landers, asked about the non-fouls, replied tersely, “Why didn’t we press? You would have had to be in the last huddle to know the answer.” What happened in that huddle? “We told them to press. I could have called another time out to remind them, but that’s what our season has been like. We’re having to tell players too many times to do the same thing.”
Which leaves the question: Why didn’t Coach Landers call that other time out? It appeared that he simply gave up. Why would he expect his team to do anything different when they were challenged?
In contrast, when the Hawks lost their lead mid-way through the second half, they adjusted and fought back to win.
Coach Cindy Griffin agreed that Georgia’s second-half adjustments had left her squad disorganized for a time. “We just weren’t doing the little things to get open,” she explained. “When you are playing a great defensive team like Georgia, they take away your first option, and then your second option. If we can get past those first two passes, we’re going to get something open.”
After they fell behind for the first time in the half, the energy demonstrated by the determined Ashley Robinson inspired her teammates to refocus and adjust to the loss of Shields.
Forward Sarah Fairbanks, one of three players in the press conference, joked, “she [Robinson] should be up here instead of me. She was really the key to us sticking with it.”
In the end St. Joseph’s won on disciplined offense and team defense, while Georgia could not maintain the energy with which they opened the second half, eventually conceding rather than contesting the final result.
St. Joes’ moves on to play Connecticut on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Game Two: (1) Connecticut 87, (16) Prairie View A&M 44
Prairie View has been here before. Many times. A 16-seed playing the top No.-1 seed and losing badly.
In 2012, at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., they lost to Connecticut (the third No. 1 seed), 83-47. Four current Lady Panthers and five Huskies played in that contest.
Connecticut started a bit slowly and turned the ball over a surprising number of times (8) in the half, more than Prairie View (6). UConn’s defense, however, is never “off,” and the Huskies held their opponent to 13-percent shooting in the half. Connecticut finished the stanza at 57 percent from the field, and led by a comfortable 44-12 as time expired on the opening frame.
Connecticut scored the first 16 points of the second half. After that onslaught, however, Prairie View won the next four-minute game segment, 11-7, their best stretch of the game. With all three of the Husky scholarship bench players in the game, UConn's game became stagnant. Prairie View capitalized, and outscored the nation’s No. 1 team during the last 16 minutes of the half, 29-27.
There was no quit in this Prairie View team, which played hard for the entire contest, turned the ball over just 11 times while forcing 18 Husky miscues. Of course, this unexpected factoid is almost meaningless trivia, with no predictive value for future games. It does provide a glimpse of the UConn’s sole vulnerability, which is more than one player in foul trouble. UConn has experience with a short bench, however, and the only starter to foul out this season is Moriah Jefferson, one time against Louisville.
“We just don’t foul,” Coach Auriemma has said, and the numbers back him up. Against ranked teams the Huskies committed just over 12 fouls a game. Their opponents averaged over 16.
Round Two Preview: Tuesday, March 25
(9) Saint Joseph's (23-9) @ (1) Connecticut (35-0) -- 7 p.m. EDT
Saint Joseph’s precise offense and defensive communication promise to present Connecticut with a far greater challenge than 70% of its AAC conference opponents. While it is unlikely that the Hawks will make the game closer than 20 points, the game will be a useful challenge to a Connecticut club that has played too many unchallenging games.