UConn win provides few answers
Should Duke faithful be conflicted about how much (if any) optimism to take away?
So what did we really see Monday night at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium? Same old, same old, with just a little less revolting final score? Or a step forward for Duke's women as a program in competing with UConn, and thus proving themselves legitimate contenders for an NCAA title? Or do we even know for sure?
If nothing else, at least this game -- a 61-45 Huskies victory -- wasn't decided before halftime. Is that a very low bar to set for a matchup between the third- and fifth-ranked teams in the nation? Well, sure it is.
But since UConn won the previous four games in this series by an average of 32.5 points, anything less than annihilation might be considered progress for Duke.
If you were looking to accentuate the Duke positives, you could say that the Blue Devils are very young -- starting four sophomores and a freshman -- and they showed more gumption Monday against UConn than they did with a senior-led team that lost two blowouts last year.
Still, a friend who's a Duke graduate sent me a text immediately after the game ended, pointing out with frustration that in Joanne P. McCallie's five meetings with UConn as Duke's coach, the Blue Devils had topped 50 points just once -- and that was in their 87-51 trouncing last January in Storrs, Conn.
These past five point totals against the Huskies -- 48, 48, 51, 40, 45 -- irritate the heck out of a lot of Duke fans, who wonder, "OK, exactly how many more All-Americans need to be recruited for us to hit 60 points against the Huskies?"
Of course, 60 wouldn't have been enough Monday, either, but it would have made for a much more exciting contest.
The previous four meetings between Duke and UConn all involved Maya Moore; the first near the start of her freshman season with the Huskies, and the fourth being the next-to-last game of her college career. Yet without one of the great program's greatest players -- the 2011 WNBA No. 1 overall draft pick and rookie of the year -- the Huskies are still major contenders for a national championship.
HUSKIES' DEFENSE NEVER RESTS
UConn's defense was terrific in Maya Moore's four seasons, during which the Huskies won two NCAA titles and reached the Final Four the other two years. But even without her this season, the Huskies are continuing to clamp down on their foes. Here's a look at the opponents' scoring average and shooting percentage. -- Mechelle Voepel
In fact, UConn this season might be an even better defensive team, at least statistically, than in Moore's four seasons. Through Monday's game, UConn is allowing opponents an average of just 45.1 points per game and holding them to 30 percent shooting from the field. The best numbers of Moore's career in that regard were in her junior season of 2009-10, when UConn's opponents averaged 46.2 points and also shot 30 percent.
In the latter category, UConn was even harder Monday on Duke, holding the Blue Devils to 24.6 percent shooting. Sophomore forward Richa Jackson had the "best" shooting performance for Duke, making 5 of 14 shots. Promising freshman Elizabeth Williams was 3-of-15 for 10 points.
While the Blue Devils had just 14 turnovers to the Huskies' 21 and were at least respectably close on the boards (40-35, UConn), it didn't much matter because Duke had so much trouble putting the ball in the basket.
By the way, is there any chance we could call for a moratorium on the phrase "UConn just doesn't get enough credit for its defense?" I know I've been guilty of using it over the years, too, but it's actually preposterous to say that now. I don't have an exact count, but it seems like half a zillion stories have been written in the past few years about how consistently great UConn's defense is, and every broadcast has high praise for the Huskies' D, too.
The notion that UConn's defense is sorely underappreciated is about as true as the suggestion that nobody gives Meryl Streep enough acclaim for the impeccable replication of the speech/mannerisms of her real-life characters. If you don't know by now that the Huskies play fantastic, disciplined and intelligent defense, you might also not know that a basketball is spherical.
By the way, is there any chance we could call for a moratorium on the phrase "UConn just doesn't get enough credit for its defense?" I know I've been guilty of using it over the years, too, but it's actually preposterous to say that now. It seems like half a zillion stories have been written in the past few years about how consistently great UConn's defense is.
The Blue Devils know it. Wow, do they ever know it. Their lowest scoring total this season before Monday was 54 points in a loss to the team ranked a spot ahead of UConn: No. 2 Notre Dame.
McCallie said that Monday's game would be a great learning experience for the Blue Devils, that they would benefit from reviewing the film. It might be the case that watching it will show them where their mistakes were, and that should indeed help in the resumption of ACC play.
But will it help if the Blue Devils face UConn again this season in the NCAA tournament? Can Duke hope to be any better on a neutral court in March/April against the Huskies than the Blue Devils were at home Monday?
Then again, that might not be a bridge Duke has to cross. Maybe it's faulty to look at the UConn-Duke game as an iron-clad referendum on the Blue Devils' ability to win an NCAA title. Conceivably, they might not have to go through UConn to do that. Another program might best the Huskies -- although the number of teams that seem capable of doing that is very, very small.
Still, it's understandable if the Duke faithful reflect on this game and are conflicted about how much (if any) optimism to take away from it in terms of what it indicates about where this season will end up for the Blue Devils.
And for UConn? Well, the Huskies ended Duke's 34-game home-court winning streak and showed that they continue to get more cohesive and comfortable in the roles that everyone has this season.
So the margin of victory was less this time. But that might be the only thing that really was different.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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