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HARTFORD, Conn. -- At one point during Monday's Big East semifinal between Connecticut and St. John's, Huskies guard Caroline Doty caught an outlet pass a few feet from her bench and looked over to coach Geno Auriemma for instruction. All she got in return was an agitated gesture suggesting, with what seemed to be little room for misinterpretation, that she proceed up court with all possible haste.
Time is running out for Connecticut to be Connecticut, leaving little opportunity to stop and mull things over.
|No one is more important to UConn's tempo than sophomore point guard Bria Hartley.|
A week after it looked like a team adrift in losing to Notre Dame in one of the arenas it calls home, No. 4 Connecticut took to the same court for its conference tournament semifinal wearing the scarlet letter, or in this case navy uniform, commensurate with ceding the regular-season title to the Fighting Irish and losing out to St. John's on a second-place tiebreaker. As the lower seed against the Red Storm, the Huskies wore their road uniforms and occupied the bench usually reserved for the visiting team at the XL Center. What looked familiar for the first time in the eternity that is several weeks in the Nutmeg State was what the players in those uniforms did.
A 74-43 win effectively decided within minutes was vintage Connecticut. Instead of looking to get even against the team that ended their 99-game home winning streak little more than two weeks ago, the Huskies looked in a hurry to reach Tuesday's final against No. 3 Notre Dame, itself a winner in a revenge game against West Virginia earlier in the evening.
"It's been awhile since we've had an opportunity to kind of be the team that we think we are," Auriemma said. "I don't know where we kind of lost it, but we kind of became a very walk-it-up, stagnant kind of a team. We tried very hard tonight to be more of what we were accustomed to being in December, late November. I thought the kids responded great. We really asked them to challenge them, to set a tempo, and set a tone for the game those first five minutes and then sustain it for the entire game. They were great. They were absolutely fantastic.
"It's one of the better games and more complete games that we've played in a long time."
They were great. They were absolutely fantastic. It's one of the better games and more complete games that we've played in a long time.” -- Coach Geno Auriemma on his Huskies' performance Monday
At its best, Connecticut plays the game faster than everyone else. It isn't just about transition or running north and south as quickly and as often as possible; the Huskies do everything at a higher rate of speed than the opposition. They are faster to rebounds, faster to set screens, faster to move the ball, even faster to reach fallen teammates to help them up. That speed went missing in recent months, reappearing for stretches without ever sticking around, but it was back from the outset Monday, creating an almost palpable energy.
St. John's was too good to simply roll over. The memory of its win in Storrs still fresh, the second seed stood its ground for a time. But gradually, the speed got to the Red Storm. Trying to get the ball into the frontcourt to catch the pressing Huskies short-handed, Eugenia McPherson got ahead of herself and watched her pass sail out of bounds several beats before her intended target. Coming out of halftime and again facing that pressure, Amber Thompson tried to pass over the press, only to overshoot her target and land the ball on Stefanie Dolson's arms at the far end of the court. Confidence turned to frustration and finally resignation.
A night after turning over the ball just 11 times in an overtime win against Louisville, St. John's finished with 20 turnovers and just six assists, shooting 26 percent in the first half and 30 percent in all.
|Skylar Diggins and the Irish beat UConn 74-67 in overtime Jan. 7, and 72-59 on Feb. 27.|
Just as importantly, Connecticut had an identity on offense. Dolson continued what has been occasionally uneven emergence from a midseason slump with 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Bria Hartley drew an offensive foul on Connecticut's first possession but never stopped attacking -- no single player is more important to the team's tempo than the sophomore point guard. Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 22 points in her customary role off the bench, knocking down four 3-pointers a day after hitting five.
A week ago, after his team was outplayed in every facet by Notre Dame, Auriemma said he didn't care about the Big East tournament, that he cared only about his team finding its footing. He didn't change his tune after Monday's win, even if the two goals now seem impossibly intertwined.
"Losing our identity, losing who we are and what we do and how we do things, that to me is much more of a loss than losing the regular-season championship," Auriemma said. "And tomorrow, gaining back our identity, gaining back who we are is way more important than winning another trophy."
Notre Dame has no such questions as to its identity. Each individual component seemingly grows better and bolder by the game, from Skylar Diggins running the show to sophomore Kayla McBride quietly emerging as a star-in-waiting; this is a team sure of who it is and how it wins. After a sluggish first half against DePaul in a quarterfinal victory, it ran roughshod over West Virginia from start to finish in Monday's opener. Regardless of the outcome of the final, Notre Dame already proved it is the Big East's best team with a pair of wins against Connecticut. Yet as strange as it sounds to those on the outside when it comes to a team ranked second in the nation in the preseason and picked to win the Big East, the Fighting Irish choose to play the respect card, perhaps a vestige of so many years in a rival's shadow.
After last week's win in Hartford, Diggins talked about proving doubters wrong. On the eve of this tournament, she elaborated.
"We never heard our name as much as we thought it should be mentioned," Diggins said of the outlook this season. "How you take care of that is you just go out there and show it on the court. I don't think we've ever been a team known for talking or giving bulletin board material, anything like that. We really try to show what we want to tell you on the court. I think this team has done a good job of staying focused and not letting the media and things like that mess with our heads and stuff because it could get stressful.
"Last year, we snuck up on people. This year, we're a target."
One team is playing for an identity Tuesday night, the other to validate one. The Big East championship trophy is insignificant by comparison.
"The best team in our league is Notre Dame," Auriemma said. "They've proven it since day one; they're the best team in our league. And we're the next-best team in the league. And I would think that we're the two teams that should be playing in the championship game tomorrow. What happened in the regular season, where West Virginia won at Notre Dame or St. John's won at Connecticut, that's supposed to happen. That should happen more often throughout the league, and I think it did this year, more so than before.
"But when it comes to the Big East tournament and you want to say, 'OK, who are the two best teams that should be playing tomorrow night?' The two best teams are playing tomorrow night."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.