|ESPN.com: Women's College Basketball||[Print without images]|
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- If this was a glimpse of the new normal, the months ahead might take a toll on Connecticut.
It still won't be much fun for the rest of the teams around the country, either. It will be even less fun for them if this was just a temporary test for the No. 1 team.
Missing two players from an already gaunt rotation, mired with foul trouble Friday and playing on the road against a team with championship aspirations and the roster to match, No. 1 Connecticut nonetheless beat No. 8 Maryland 72-55.
This wasn't the best team Connecticut can put on the court. It was a team that made a compelling case that the Huskies remain the best team by a comfortable margin.
"If I had my druthers, I'd rather have 10 healthy players than seven," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "But tonight, the seven that we had, for the most part, played great."
It wasn't a great deal more complicated than that. It just seemed that it should have been.
|Moriah Jefferson scored 15 points, hitting 7-of-11 shots. She added four assists, three steals and no turnovers in 35 minutes.|
Connecticut turned over the ball just six times in the game. In the second half, when the Huskies presumably should have most felt the effects of playing short-handed, they limited the Terrapins to 31 percent shooting and piled almost as many offensive rebounds (13) as the Terrapins did in total (17).
They had the finishing kick, not the team that played 11 people and played in front of more than 15,000 partisan fans at the Comcast Center.
It's not clear how many more times the Huskies will need to repeat their performance Friday night, when seven players accounted for all 200 available minutes and six players combined for 190 of those minutes. They expect sophomore reserve Morgan Tuck will be back in four to six weeks, a timeframe that roughly coincides with the start of conference play, after she underwent arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this week. What the Huskies don't know, or aren't sharing if they do, is when All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will return after she sustained a nerve contusion in her right elbow after falling awkwardly during the second half of Monday's win against Stanford.
But it is clear that if they need to do it, Brianna Banks, Moriah Jefferson and Kiah Stokes can help.
In Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart, Connecticut still has three of the 20 to 25 best players in the country -- and that is a conservative estimate of their peer group. For a time Friday night, that seemed like it might be enough to manage without Mosqueda-Lewis and Tuck. Specifically, it seemed Stewart might be enough.
She and fellow national player of the year contender Alyssa Thomas matched each other point for point for the first few minutes until even Thomas couldn't maintain the pace. With more than six minutes remaining in the opening half, Stewart already had 19 points with a shot chart that stretched from the block to beyond the 3-point line.
But as unstoppable as she looked on the offensive end, Stewart also looked like a player not all that much removed from her freshman season when she bit on Alicia DeVaughn's shot fake and picked up her second foul with more than seven minutes remaining in the first half. Stewart stayed on the court long enough to hit another couple of shots, but unbeknownst to anyone, most of her points were already in the books with the game still very much up for grabs. She finished with 26 points.
The difference was the trio of Banks, Jefferson and Stokes, especially the two guards who held things together as fouls plagued the post players. Jefferson finished with 15 points, four assists, three steals and not a single turnover in a career-best 35 minutes. Banks, in just her third game back from last February's torn ACL, finished with nine points in 25 minutes.
"With Kaleena a lot of the time, she dominates the ball -- rightly so -- and there's not a lot left over," Auriemma said. "But tonight, those two I think showed the kind of players that they are."
|Brianna Banks hit 4-of-7 shots for nine points for UConn, and added three rebounds, one assist and no turnovers in 25 minutes.|
This was also unmistakably an opportunity missed by Maryland.
Dolson picked up her third foul just 16 seconds into the second half chasing down an offensive rebound. Stokes followed with her third foul a few seconds later at the defensive end. Auriemma had little choice but to leave one of them on the court, so Dolson remained, an open invitation for the Terrapins to try and press their personnel advantage and get her out of the game.
After Katie Rutan hit a 3-pointer to tie the score at 43, Maryland had its chance.
Its next two offensive possessions ended in traveling violations. The next ended when DeVaughn, with Dolson playing well off of her, missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key rather than force the defender to commit herself.
Dolson ultimately did what Maryland seemed unwilling to, picking up her fourth foul while wrestling for position on the offensive end, but the moment was gone. Baskets by Stewart, Dolson, Stokes and Jefferson pushed Connecticut's lead to 51-43. It was never less than six beyond that.
If Maryland could have finished off Dolson or Stokes, things might have been different. If Maryland could have applied more full-court pressure to wear down Hartley, who suffered through a terrible shooting night (4 of 21 from the field, including 0-for-11 on 3-point atempts) but ran her team efficiently in playing all 40 minutes, things might have been different. But the Terrapins couldn't, and the Huskies didn't oblige by beating themselves.
Healthy and far deeper than it was a season ago, Maryland looked like a team that could earn another shot at Connecticut at Nashville, but it won't get any better shot than it had Friday.
Fittingly, Banks and Jefferson effectively finished off the home team, combining for a 7-2 run that culminated in a layup for Banks, followed seven seconds later by a layup for Jefferson off a steal.
"I said in the locker room, Moriah was phenomenal tonight," Auriemma said. "I think she didn't feel particularly happy with the way she played in the Stanford game and put a lot of work into it in the last couple of days and came out, and I think she set the tone for us in the second half defensively."
Between the foul trouble and the moment late in the first half when Banks briefly limped to the bench with an injury, it was clear Friday night how small Connecticut's margin for error is at this point. But with Sunday's trip to Penn State offering a challenging finale to a week of tests, it also seems that the gap between the Huskies and the rest of the country remains.
"We're still coming out, we're still playing Connecticut basketball, and we're going to get a win," Stewart said. "Even if it's a sloppy win, we played hard and we got it done."
To borrow a phrase: We few, we happy few, we band of sisters.