Commentary

UConn's No. 23 rises to occasion again

Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis channels a little Maya Moore-like magic

Originally Published: November 21, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- If legends can still spread by word of mouth in an age of Twitter, nearly 14,000 acolytes headed into the Hartford night with a new one to tell.

In the first game Maya Moore played against Stanford as a freshman, she came off Geno Auriemma's bench and scored 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting to lead Connecticut to a victory early in the 2007-08 season. In the first game Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played against Stanford as a freshman, she matched Moore point for point, with the person who used to wear No. 23 in attendance.

The difference is Mosqueda-Lewis did it in the first half. She finished with 25 points in Connecticut's 68-58 win.

[+] EnlargeKaleena Mosqueda-Lewis
AP Photo/Jessica HillKaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 25 points (on 10-of-17 shooting), eight rebounds, two steals and no turnovers in 32 minutes.

The comparisons aren't fair, even if the number and stoic demeanor Moore and Mosqueda-Lewis share in common makes it all too tempting to do just that. Not every night will be like this one. Some nights will be like opening night, when a player regarded by many as the nation's top recruit missed all seven 3-point attempts against Holy Cross.

But when Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer called the game between teams that were poised to inherit the No. 2 ranking a "heavyweight fight" more suited to March than November, it became difficult not to make a big deal out of this.

Stanford and Connecticut beat most teams because each is better coached, deeper and more experienced. They beat each other because ties aren't allowed. And because someone rises to the occasion. Even if it's a freshman.

Hampered by early foul trouble, Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike did all she could to be that player as the Cardinal rallied in the second half, but Mosqueda-Lewis simply beat her to the punch.

"Great basketball programs don't necessarily win big games against really, really good teams," Auriemma said. "Those games are won by players who have a lot of talent and can make plays. Kaleena has a lot of talent, and she certainly knows how to make plays. There's no hesitancy on her part."

Mosqueda-Lewis entered Monday's game as Connecticut's second-leading scorer, but she owed much of that standing to points piled up in the late stages of a rout against Pacific. Garbage-time stats, to give those 25 points their more colloquial name. But she cemented her place as this team's star in waiting by cleaning up the offensive detritus her teammates left behind in the opening half against the Cardinal.

As is the case many places, Connecticut fans stand and clap at the beginning of each half, sitting only after their team scores its first points. The faithful hadn't been in their seats long when Mosqueda-Lewis checked in for the first time almost five minutes into the game. It took the Huskies more than three minutes to get on the scoreboard. They didn't make a field goal until Mosqueda-Lewis obliged with 13:55 to play in the first half. With just more than eight minutes to play in the half, she had four field goals in six attempts. The rest of the team had one -- in 15 attempts.

[+] EnlargeNneka Ogwumike
AP Photo/Jessica HillHampered by early foul trouble, Nneka Ogwumike played just 23 minutes, tallying eight rebounds and 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting.

The Huskies gave about as good a defensive effort as it's possible to envision for the full 40 minutes. But all of that effort might have gone unrewarded without the freshman's points on the other end. Stanford might have held the lead at halftime, despite Ogwumike playing just six minutes because of foul trouble, and carried momentum forward.

Ogwumike lived up to her All-American billing in the second half, scoring four points in the first 55 seconds and 18 of her 22 points in all. But where the Huskies eventually followed their freshman's leads, getting a late first-half surge from Bria Hartley en route to 14 total points, two big second-half 3-pointers from Caroline Doty and eventual points from Stefanie Dolson and Tiffany Hayes, the Cardinal couldn't solve the defensive puzzle and come to Ogwumike's aid. The other four Cardinal starters finished with just 14 points on 5-of-27 shooting and nine turnovers.

There is no right demeanor for a star. Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins sometimes wear their emotions on their sleeves. Moore went the opposite way, showing all the visible emotion of Barry Sanders after he scored a touchdown most of the time. The only right demeanor is the one that's true to yourself. What Mosqueda-Lewis showed Monday was someone too confident in her own abilities to let the moment get to her. She didn't look nervous. She didn't look excited. She just looked ready. And on this stage, that was a feat.

"It felt different," Mosqueda-Lewis admitted of the atmosphere and opponent. "There was a high energy out there -- our team, every time something big happened we were screaming in each other's faces and so excited. A game like this, when you make good plays against a great team like Stanford, you've got to be a little bit excited."

Freshmen are supposed to play like Connecticut's Brianna Banks and Stanford's Taylor Greenfield, players of immense talent and potential who looked overwhelmed by their surroundings Monday. At best in a game of this magnitude, they play like Connecticut's Kiah Stokes, who quietly provided 14 solid minutes of a big body down low, or Stanford's Jasmine Camp, who totaled 14 points, three rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes off the bench.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore and Rebecca Lobo
AP Photo/Jessica HillWhile UConn's new No. 23 helped the Huskies stay unbeaten this season, Maya Moore got some pointers from analyst Rebecca Lobo.

They aren't supposed to take over a game played with postseason intensity, hitting shots with an almost eerie calm, pulling down eight rebounds and holding her own as part of the team's collective defensive front.

"The way she fought defensively inside against those big kids and the shots she makes, just makes you shake your head," Auriemma said. "That's not something you go to practice and coach. She just has that thing about her. And you know, Bria's the same way. I think her and Bria are a lot alike, and I think the two of them have a pretty good connection on the floor [from time as teammates with USA Basketball]. They both have similar approaches to the game. They want to win the game, and they know they can."

Connecticut gave a defensive effort it will be hard-pressed to match. Stanford held its own because it's a physical team with a truly special player.

But in a game like this, success often comes down to a star rising to the occasion.

"I don't want to say what I think because it's too early," Auriemma said of Mosqueda-Lewis' potential, his search for words speaking volumes.

Even if he doesn't want to say it, there are about 14,000 people who will do the talking for him.

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

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

ALSO SEE