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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Updated: December 7, 11:23 AM ET
Defending champ can't handle UConn 'D'

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- We might be in the midst of the season of giving, but Connecticut is more interested in taking at the moment.

Taking out the teams that shared the stage with the Huskies in the Final Four. Taking the ball from opponents and taking better care of it than Swiss banks do with money. Taking control of their own identity.

Do they have weaknesses? Sure, maybe more than in recent seasons. But to do anything about it, you've got to catch them. Then you've got to stay with them.

This wasn't a chance to see a game never played in Indianapolis, not without Maya Moore, Danielle Adams and Sydney Colson on the court. But second-ranked Connecticut's 81-51 dismantling of No. 7 Texas A&M -- the worst loss by a defending national champion since Baylor lost by 31 against LSU in 2006 -- was a statement of championship intent all the same.

As he so often does, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair summed up the proceedings rather well.

Caroline Doty
UConn's Caroline Doty played her best game of the season: 11 points, 4-for-6 shooting and no turnovers in 21 minutes.

"We're not ready for this type of competition," Blair ruefully drawled afterward.

Connecticut shot 51 percent from the field and 35 percent from the 3-point line, but offense was the supporting actor here. The Huskies won with defense. And they won it early by beating the Aggies at their own game.

"A team that pressures does not like to be pressured back," Blair lamented.

Texas A&M is the team that's supposed to make opponents feel like the court is at once way too big and impossibly small, every pass contested and every step challenged while the basket remains frustratingly far away. The Aggies arrived with more assists than turnovers, just as they finished last season. The defending champs entered forcing an average of 24.7 turnovers per game, better even than a season ago. Louisville turned over the ball 27 times against Texas A&M this season. Iowa did it 25 times and Temple 27 times. All of those teams expect to have games to play when the NCAA tournament begins.

At halftime at the XL Center, the Huskies had five turnovers. The Aggies had 14. Guess which team had the 36-24 lead.

It could have been worse. The Aggies turned the ball over 11 times in the first 12 minutes, allowing the Huskies to race to a 25-11 lead. A team that still has veterans Tyra White, Sydney Carter and Adaora Elonu from its championship rotation rallied, at least briefly, to go basket for basket for the rest of the half, but the damage was done.

"We felt like our defensive pressure could give us a chance to maybe get out in the open floor a little more," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "Texas A&M is a really, really good half-court defensive team. They're really physical. They really try to take you out of your stuff. I thought if we extended the floor, it would give us a couple more opportunities. I thought it set the tone right from the beginning."

Texas A&M managed to finish the game with just 20 turnovers, matching the number of turnovers it had in a loss at Purdue on Sunday. Some of that was a credit to the Aggies; junior guard Adrienne Pratcher, effectively Colson's replacement, turned over the ball just twice in 20 minutes in the second half after looking flustered fairly frequently in the early going. Most of it was because Connecticut simply didn't need to apply as much pressure as that 12-point halftime lead ballooned to 20 early in the second half and kept climbing as Texas A&M's resolve crumbled and the home team's shooting percentage soared.

That's the devilish thing about Connecticut, particularly on either of the two home courts that have provided an NCAA-record 91 consecutive home wins. Turnovers against the Huskies seem to count treble because season after season, class after class, Auriemma's teams value the basketball better than any other program in the nation. If you turn it over, you aren't likely to see them reciprocate.

Kelly Faris
Kelly Faris, one of six UConn players in double digits, had 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals.

The Huskies entered the game averaging just 13.2 turnovers per game, but Auriemma still singled out even that carelessness for extra attention in recent practices. The price to be paid? Extra pressure from Connecticut's male practice players.

"He'll have them up just killing us on the ball," Caroline Doty explained. "You have to worry about keeping your dribble because if you pick it up, everything is ruined -- you might as well just hand them the ball."

Texas A&M eventually retreated, but the game looked like it would be defended end-to-end in both directions when it started. It's just that the Huskies turned the pressure into easy basket after easy basket. They beat Stanford behind brilliant solo efforts from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Bria Hartley. They beat Texas A&M with six players scoring between 10 and 14 points. Bria Hartley, Tiffany Hayes and Kelly Faris combined for 21 assists and six turnovers. Texas A&M hit 20 field goals the entire game.

"They handle the ball so much better than any team we have faced," Blair said. "It's fun to work when you've got kids who can handle the ball and make good decisions."

One feeds the other. His occasional sideline protestations notwithstanding, Auriemma's teams value the ball more than most and know what to do with it in any given situation. That means they usually know what their opponents want to do with it, too. Sometimes before they do.

"Being on offense and having him tell us where to go on traps or where to go for this, that and the other thing, you have that in the back of your head," Doty said. "The other team is going to want to do the same thing, so you almost anticipate the cuts or anticipate the flashes or pressure them one way or the other. We have scouting reports for a reason."

Late in the game, Connecticut students chanted "There's no repeat" at the Aggies. It's a little early in the season for that. Carter won't be mired in a 1-of-27 shooting slump all season, White isn't getting any less capable of dropping in points and Bone isn't growing any shorter. Just as he said his team wasn't ready for this level of competition, Blair noted he felt the same way about his team in the early going a season ago. That worked out pretty well in the end.

There are a lot of variables at play for the Huskies, too. Doty, who played her best game of the season given the circumstances with 11 points and three steals in 21 minutes, must stay healthy. Mosqueda-Lewis must continue to develop, Stefanie Dolson, singled out by Blair as the biggest difference, must stay out of foul trouble and rebound. And on and on the list goes.

But the one question mark that won't follow this team pertains to how hard it will play. Whether or not it's a great defensive team, it plays with the belief that it is.

"I think what happens is when you're willing to go at that pace for 40 minutes, I think the other team just kind of gets to a point where they just go, 'I can't keep this up,' And you can see it in their faces and their body language," Auriemma said. "And we just keep that pace.

"That's the one thing I'm the most proud of is we're able to do that, just keep that pace."

Next up for the Huskies? After a game at Seton Hall, it's time to take a trip to Waco.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.