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STORRS, Conn. -- With a little less than six minutes remaining in the first half, Connecticut had a game on its hands.
That wouldn't qualify as particularly noteworthy most places on most Sunday afternoons, but most places aren't Gampel Pavilion in the midst of conference play in the decidedly underwhelming American Athletic Conference. Prior to Sunday's game against fourth-ranked Louisville, which was making its first and final trip to Storrs as an American member, top-ranked Connecticut's most recent conference home game had been a 102-41 win against SMU. Its closest conference home game had been a 33-point win.
But here, facing the team it defeated in the national championship game a season ago, Connecticut led by just five points late in the opening half after Louisville withstood an early run and answered with one of its own. To have a chance to beat Connecticut, Louisville coach Jeff Walz said after the fact, any team has to survive long enough to create situations with meaningful shots midway through the second half. Unlike the national championship game, that seemed at least conceivable.
|UConn's defense never let up on Shoni Schimmel, who shot 4-of-15 from the field, including 1-of-5 on 3-point attempts.|
As Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis lined up for the first of two free throws, Geno Auriemma called out to Breanna Stewart and gestured for her to come back to where he stood at the other end of the court. He spoke to her for a few seconds, not animatedly or angrily, then patted her on the back and sent the sophomore out into the world.
"He told me to calm down," Stewart recalled. "I think that there was a couple of times I was getting too excited on offense and kind of maybe not taking as good of a shot as I wanted. And then he was just saying to see the ball go into the basket, just make some shots."
On her team's next offensive possession she picked up an offensive foul while battling for position in the post. But on the trip after that, less than a minute after the conversation, she buried a 3-pointer to extend UConn's lead to eight points. Thirty-two seconds later, she rose and stroked another 3-pointer when a defender was slow to close her out.
Make some shots. Coaching genius. Must be nice.
The game was far from finished, but neither was Stewart. She totaled 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in an 81-64 victory.
"She's a special player," Walz said. "There's no question she's the best player in the country, in my opinion. What she does is when you have breakdowns, she makes you pay. You pay for them. ... We had told our kids just keep a hand in her face and make her drive it or shoot a contested pull-up because that's not her strength. And we had our hands down and then we got caught on a pin down because one of our kids fell down and she hits back-to-back 3s. I mean, it's big-time shots."
Still perfect on the season and hopefully healthy was what mattered to Connecticut by the time it was over. The Huskies improved to 25-0 on the season and, with only seven scholarship players in uniform to start the day, might have escaped a serious injury to Mosqueda-Lewis, who briefly left the court after suffering a left elbow injury in the first half.
What Louisville and the rest of the country are again left to contemplate is there is still no answer for Stewart.
|Defensively, Moriah Jefferson harassed Shoni Schimmel all game. Offensively, she scored a career-high 18 points.|
Most players, even great players, have weaknesses or vulnerabilities. As good as Shoni Schimmel is, she couldn't escape the defense played by Moriah Jefferson and Bria Hartley, couldn't shake loose for open jumpers or get moving in transition. She hit just 4 of 15 shots Sunday, including 1 of 5 attempts from the 3-point line. That after last season, when she hit 3 of 15 shots in the national championship game and 6-of-16 in the regular season against the Huskies. Schimmel is great, but she can be defended.
Even Brittney Griner, as Louisville famously proved in last season's NCAA tournament, wasn't invincible if she didn't see much of the ball and felt it on those occasions when she did. Compared to Griner -- compared even to Maya Moore, who neither Walz nor anyone else ever really solved in her college career -- Stewart remains more difficult to defend.
"It's harder because Stewart's 6-foot-4, can play inside-out," Walz said. "As talented as Maya is, and she's fantastic -- she's one of the best in the world -- it's just a different situation. She posted up some, but not a bunch. Whereas if you put a small guard on Stewart, she's going to go down and post. Griner's a situation where she'd pop out to the 3-point line, but you don't want to defend her out there. Your whole goal is to try and make it tough for her in the post.
"Stewart's just got that all-around game."
It helps that she has the all-around cast out there with her, too. Walz absolved Schimmel of some of her shooting woes by suggesting he and she needed more support from the players out there with her (although it's difficult to find fault with Asia Taylor, who totaled 18 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in addition to her defensive work). Stewart did plenty but didn't have to do any more than that, not with Jefferson continuing to emerge as yet another All-American-caliber player, scoring a career-best 18 points to go with her standard array of defensive gems. Not with Stefanie Dolson scoring down low as the Huskies finally got some breathing room in the second half. Not with Hartley being Hartley.
But it's Stewart who isn't just difficult to guard, but increasingly impossible.
"I'm 6-1 and I'm trying to do everything I can," Taylor said. "I'm trying to swim, I'm trying to go under, I'm trying to go over, and she has a lot of good counters to everything you do defensively."
Barring some advances in cloning, it will be difficult for a team to defend Stewart much better than Louisville did despite giving up inches with Taylor, Sara Hammond and others. They were physical, they were committed and they had a plan.
And still she hit big shot after big shot when the opportunity presented itself, the 3-pointer in the first half or another 3-pointer and a layup when Louisville cut the deficit to seven points early in the second half. That takes a mental toll on anyone guarding her.
"I think it happens to us, too, when we play her in pickup," Hartley said. "You can be in her face, have your hand in her face or right there, but her length, she's just able to shoot over everyone. It's just really hard to guard, and the way she moves without the ball also helps her."
Louisville pushed Connecticut at least as much as Baylor did, considering this game came in a place where UConn almost literally never loses while it played the Big 12 team in Waco. Not to the breaking point, and perhaps not even that close to one in the scheme of things, but more than any other team in the conference will.
Stewart can look good in any game. She needed to be good in this one. That matters on the march toward Nashville.
"Some people score a lot of points; she scores them exactly when you need them," Auriemma said. "She hits the three-run home run when we're down by two."