Monday, March 19, 2007
Ninth-seeded Phoenix prepare for mismatch
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Everyone knows how the aftermath of history's biggest mismatch played out, but how might things have sounded in the press conference the day before David stunned Goliath?
Q: So, uh, David, is it? For those of us who may not have seen you in action yet, what are some of the things that you feel are most responsible for your getting the chance to be on the same stage as a legendary program like the Philistines?
Q: Will you really try to just savor this experience for the next few hours, or are you able to actually believe you have a chance to come out of tomorrow alive?
Q: Can you talk a little about the rock-throwing system you're known for? Do you have any plans to break out some new tricks, considering Goliath is a much more physically gifted competitor than the level of competition you're used to facing?
Q: David, how long have you been an Israelite rock-thrower?
And so on. A heavy underdog is always just another lens through which to view the favorite.
Fast forward a few millennia, and even if coach Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut players were saying all the right things about not taking any team for granted after Sunday's win and before Monday's practice, a second-round game between the top-seeded Huskies and No. 9 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay is another mismatch of monumental proportions.
Just ask Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth, who broke out the trusty David-and-Goliath metaphor in calling the game a "foregone conclusion" while talking with the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Rob Demovsky after an opening-round win against New Mexico.
The top-seeded Huskies raced past Maryland-Baltimore County by 49 points on Sunday night and haven't lost a second-round game since 1992. They boast McDonald's All-Americans at almost every position, while Wisconsin-Green Bay, to borrow a perfect line from Missouri State men's coach Barry Hinson, just eats at McDonald's.
By almost any standard, this shouldn't be a close game.
"We can't impose our will on them; they can impose their will on us," Borseth said.
But what's the view like from David's perspective?
Said senior forward Nicole Soulis: "We obviously know that we may have the deck stacked against us, but at the same time, we have nothing to lose. They may have everything to lose, because they're the home team and they're the hosts."
Doing the impossible begins with maintaining the team's defensive integrity, and Rachel Porath might be the face of Borseth's first stone.
Porath didn't make a major impact on the box score in the win against New Mexico, but the sophomore swing player possesses the toughness that elite mid-major athletes must use to offset athletic deficiencies. Quiet, almost sleepy, when she's talking off the court, Porath plays like an agile, attacking linebacker on the court. And in Borseth's eyes, she's as tough as anyone he has ever coached.
"She's just a tough, competitive kid," Borseth said earlier this season. "I think she's limited in some respects as a player, but I tell you what, she's tough. It's probably not a great analogy, but she's an animal. She's one of those kids that it just seems like all you do is feed them raw meat. She'll knock you down and she won't pick you up. She's all business on the court. She's full blast the second she steps on the floor."
Wisconsin-Green Bay's defense is built on help and communication, so Porath won't be on an island against any single player on Tuesday, but putting her in front of someone like Kalana Greene and daring Connecticut's budding superstar to put her body on the line by attacking the lane is a good place to start. Monday afternoon, Porath didn't sound like someone daunted by the surroundings while standing in the bowels of the Hartford Civic Center, Connecticut's home away from home.
"I just think that I can't go out there thinking that it's UConn; I have to think it's just another team," Porath said quietly. "I don't really care who they are. I just think we have to go out with a lot of confidence."
Borseth's second stone is on offense, where Soulis must lead the way.
Connecticut most lives up to the image of Goliath in the post, where Tina Charles, Charde Houston and even Brittany Hunter, in limited minutes, are capable of towering over Soulis and her teammates.
Wisconsin-Green Bay actually came out of its first-round game with a rebounding edge over New Mexico, a rare occurrence for the undersized Phoenix, but they still struggled to match the Lobos inside and stand no chance of banging against the Huskies (although sophomore Lavesa Glover could help by eating up some minutes and fouls). But Soulis, who came to Green Bay as a face-up player and is a 36 percent shooter from behind the arc for her career, got in a groove against the Lobos by stepping away from the block in the second half.
"We're more of a finesse team, and it really gets a lot more physical at this level," Borseth said. "I mean, [Soulis] was shoved right out to half court [against New Mexico]. They've got two arms in the back, one knee behind her, moving her out of there, and it's difficult for her to maintain position. Like I say, she's more of a finesse player. So maybe we need to re-evaluate, and maybe in Tuesday's game we try to get her more involved, because she can take you off the dribble and she can shoot it standing up."
Along with point guard Natalie Berglin, Soulis is the heart of the offense. If she's unable to find a way to get points somewhere on the court, things will fall apart in a hurry.
Connecticut should win this game. Connecticut probably will win this game. Renee Montgomery and Ketia Swanier should eat up Berglin and Kayla Groh, disrupting the Phoenix before they can get into their well-honed offensive sets. Houston and Charles should have their way in the paint, getting position and offensive rebounds almost at will. And Mel Thomas should make the Phoenix pay for overextending the help defense, spotting up for open looks from behind the arc.
Anything else would demand a confluence of circumstances almost beyond the limits of probability.
"We need to do everything right," senior Amanda Popp said. "I mean, all of our fundamentals have to be sound, because every turnover that you make, they're going to score on. So everything we do has to be perfect, pretty much."
But every David gets a chance to throw his stones, and you never know what might happen after that.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.