Commentary

A game both teams benefited from

UConn holds Sims to 20 points, snaps Baylor's 69-game home winning streak

Originally Published: January 13, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

WACO, Texas -- The term "perfectionist" gets way overused, when you think about it. A lot of people might claim to be obsessed with perfection, but how many really are? That is a very arduous and time-consuming endeavor.

It's one thing to really want things to be perfect and to get irritated when they aren't. It's another to be fully committed to the chase for perfect, and never back away from it.

Monday night, at a loud and enthusiastic Ferrell Center, we saw two genuine perfectionists at work in No. 1 UConn's entertaining 66-55 victory over No. 7 Baylor.

Huskies coach Geno Auriemma and Baylor counterpart Kim Mulkey have experienced perfect seasons for their teams. In Mulkey's case, that's both as a college player and a coach.

[+] EnlargeBria Hartley
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezUConn's Bria Hartley, left, and Moriah Jefferson (not pictured) made it tough for Baylor's Odyssey Sims, right, to get good looks at the basket. Sims, who was averaging 31.8 ppg before Monday, finished with 20.

But even in those years when their teams didn't lose a game, they still knew things weren't truly perfect. Trying to achieve that, though, is how they are hard-wired.

Neither team was even close to perfect Monday. UConn shot 36.7 percent from the field, Baylor 30.5. Yet you saw the reflection of both coaches' personalities in the gritty, determined way the Huskies and Lady Bears competed.

"The kids played their hearts out," Mulkey said of her group. Auriemma's assessment of his Huskies: "When the game got close -- a one-point game -- I was as anxious as anybody. I said, 'All right, let's see what we're going to do here.' And we responded."

Which you would expect from the defending national champions who are everyone's pick to win the NCAA title again in 2014.

But Baylor did a lot right, too. Or at the very least, even when the Lady Bears made mistakes, they were coming from aggressive, assertive play. It's too grandiose and hyperbolic to say the mostly youthful Lady Bears "grew up" in this closer-than-most-predicted defeat. The fact is, the whole season will be a growth process for a team that lost five seniors.

"Every timeout, we were teaching," Mulkey said. "Constantly repeating things to them. Because, really, this was the first big-time atmosphere that a lot of them had been in."

Baylor did have one other previous high-profile game this season, which resulted in the Lady Bears' other loss. That was the 133-130 four-overtime marathon versus then-No. 5 Kentucky on a neutral court at AT&T Stadium in Dallas in December.

However, this was against the biggie: UConn. This was the game everyone would look to as a measuring stick for Baylor. And the Lady Bears stood taller than even Mulkey realistically expected.

She knew when you go against the likes of the Huskies, the margin for error pretty much disappears. There was definitely the potential for a lot of bad stuff from her team, Mulkey said, such as terrible defense, too many turnovers, getting pushed around. But Baylor didn't get run over the way other teams have this season by UConn.

"I think you saw Baylor is not too shabby with all those babies out there," Mulkey proudly said of a group that has seven underclassmen on its 11-player active roster. "And we can score from multiple positions."

Baylor needed that Monday, because star Odyssey Sims -- who leads Division I women in scoring -- had a difficult shooting game. OK, let's be frank, it was an awful shooting game: 4-of-25 from the field. But she made 10 of 10 free throws and finished with 20 points.

Part of Sims' struggle was, no doubt, the defensive effort of UConn guards Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson, who hounded Sims and also were big contributors on offense, combining for 30 points and eight assists. But part of it also seemed to be Sims -- who has carried such an enormous load for Baylor as the lone returning starter this season -- was trying to force a little too much.

The Lady Bears got a double-double -- 11 points, 17 rebounds -- from freshman forward Nina Davis. And Makenzie Robertson had 10 points and five rebounds and played tireless defense against the likes of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (eight points) and Breanna Stewart (a team-best 18 points).

Before the game, Stewart, Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson (10 points for UConn) were honored, along with Sims, for their USA Basketball prowess. All are in the pool out of which the national team will be selected for this year's World Championship and the 2016 Olympics. Auriemma will coach the Americans in both those competitions.

[+] EnlargeMoriah Jefferson
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMoriah Jefferson and UConn improved to 18-0 on the season.

Robertson, meanwhile, is a senior who bided her time behind other players her first three years and now is a starter. She came to Baylor because she wanted to play for her mom, Mulkey, but Robertson has received no favoritism. You saw Monday why she's getting the minutes she is as a senior -- because she has earned them.

Monday was the first time Sims and Robertson have lost at the Ferrell Center; UConn's win ended Baylor's home-court winning streak at 69. But the Lady Bears showed the women's basketball world something Monday by their performance. More important to them, they showed their coach something.

"They're proving to me that we are a top team in the country, and we're to be reckoned with," Mulkey said.

But what about the winners? Well, they showed themselves and their coach something, too. UConn had pretty much steamrolled all previous opponents this season. The Huskies were coming off an 80-36 thrashing of Temple. There are some games in which UConn's biggest obstacle is avoiding sloppy play that could be caused by sheer boredom.

Monday, the Huskies were tested, and they played their best on key possessions. This is where Auriemma's perfectionism shows. He talked about how, in practice, he has drills for which he won't let his team shoot until they have completed a certain number of crisp and efficient passes.

That is the execution you then see in games, how the Huskies stay patient and keep working, working, working to get the best shot. UConn forces other teams to eventually make the mistakes that give the Huskies what they want.

"Every time there's a challenge, you have to accept it," Auriemma said of this contest. "I go looking for these kinds of challenges. I love these games. We thrive in this kind of environment."

We've come to just expect that from UConn, year after year. With Baylor, in recent years, we've expected it, too. But this Baylor team, with all the graduation losses, had something to prove. It did that Monday. And both teams actually benefited from it. So did women's basketball, which needed this game this season.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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