Commentary

UConn comes together at right time

Auriemma wins 800th game as Huskies solve Irish to win fifth straight Big East title

Originally Published: March 6, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

HARTFORD, Conn. -- For a man who eight days earlier said he didn't care about the Big East tournament, Geno Auriemma spent Tuesday's championship game acting like the fate of his program hinged on each possession.

So while there were bigger wins among the 799 that preceded a 63-54 win against No. 3 Notre Dame, it's difficult to imagine Auriemma ever expended more energy in victory than he did in earning No. 800. Connecticut's coach is never a model of subdued reflection on the sideline, but there was something almost manic about his energy the final two nights in Hartford. Each stomp, each shout, each hand run through his hair seemed part of a larger plea.

His team heard him. And they finally took it upon themselves to follow his lead.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
David Butler II/US PresswireFor the past two games, there was "something almost manic" about Geno Auriemma's energy on the sidelines.

A week after losing to Notre Dame by 13 points on the same court, a result that led Auriemma to offer his take on the value of the looming conference tournament and to suggest that Maya Moore took the program's fight with her to the WNBA, the Huskies reclaimed a share of the Big East hardware and rediscovered their identity for at least a night, maybe longer.

Eschewing the 3-pointers that she loves to take and so frequently makes, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 19 points the hard way to become the first Connecticut freshman since Diana Taurasi to earn most outstanding player honors in the tournament. Sophomore Bria Hartley finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and four steals, winning the battle of point guards against Skylar Diggins on all cards. Playing her final game in the XL Center, Tiffany Hayes threw herself into the paint often enough to come away with 14 points and eight rebounds. And Kelly Faris, again given so much room to shoot that it made Wyoming look crowded by comparison, knocked down two key 3-pointers.

It was never clear who the Huskies could count on to lead the way this season. There wasn't a Moore or Taurasi. Tuesday, that was an asset, which made a fifth consecutive Big East tournament title feel like something entirely new.

"Tonight and last night they weren't looking for Maya Moore, they weren't looking for Tina [Charles], they weren't looking for Renee [Montgomery]," Auriemma said. "They kind of looked over, they looked at each other and said, 'OK, this is what we've got.' This one feels really good for them, I think, because it's theirs. They own this one."

The other voice they heard was his. Throughout the game, but particularly in his team's opening surge of energy, Auriemma was as animated as at any time in recent memory. Almost every defensive possession found him in something close to a defensive stance of his own, sliding along the floor as he called out moves in a high-speed game of chess. The scorer's table near the Connecticut bench took the brunt of his frustrations at perceived miscarriages of justice, first from his hand and later from his foot. People wondered how his players would react to such dour comments as those he offered after last week's loss, but they hear worse every time they take the court.

[Geno] Auriemma was as animated as at any time in recent memory. Almost every defensive possession found him in something close to a defensive stance of his own, sliding along the floor as he called out moves in a high-speed game of chess.

"You hear it, but at the same time, you know he's right," Faris said. "You just kind of have to figure out how to take it. When you come here, you know you're going to get that. You know you're going to get him in your ear all the time. So you know it's coming. He sees so much -- so many little things he sees. It's good, it's good to get the reinforcement of what you should, what you shouldn't do. But at the same time, you can't let him get to you.

"I think that's one of the best things about him is he tries really hard to figure out what makes people tick and how to approach people, each individual player. You kind of have to filter it, but you've got to take what he's saying. You know he's right."

There was no way Connecticut could maintain the energy level it expended to claim a 27-17 lead in the first half. A similar burst knocked out St. John's early in the previous night's semifinal, but as good as the Red Storm are, they aren't the Fighting Irish. The pace slowed ever so slightly for the Huskies, and the top seed pounced. Even without Natalie Novosel, saddled with early foul trouble as she was in the first game this season between the teams, Notre Dame closed to within a point at halftime after Kaila Turner hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds. One observer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Huskies history talked ominously about Alicia Ratay, the Notre Dame sharpshooter whose 3-pointer seconds before halftime in a 2001 national semifinal sparked a comeback that handed Auriemma among the most painful of his 128 career defeats.

[+] Enlarge800
AP Photo/Jessica HillGeno Auriemma is 800-128 in 27 seasons at UConn, and reached the milestone in fewer games than any other coach.

But fire and brimstone were in short supply when the Huskies got to the locker room at the break.

"I've learned my lesson with this group," Auriemma said. "There's not a lot of tough guys with this group. I can't go in there like when we had Diana [Taurasi] and Sveta [Abrosimova] and Tina [Charles] and those guys when they were older. I can't go in there and rant and rave and start throwing things around because back then they would throw it back at me -- I'd have to duck because it would be flying back at me. These guys, you've got to be real careful how you deal with them.

"So what was disappointing was that we worked so hard to get that 27-17 lead. It was so taxing. I mean, we just played our butts off. And then all of a sudden, we just took the foot off the gas pedal and we just stopped. And they're not going to go away. This isn't like any team you're playing; it's Notre Dame."

Notre Dame never did hit its stride, Diggins suffering through a tougher day than her 16 points might suggest, Novosel never getting on track after the fouls and the entire team failing to match Connecticut's intensity on the boards. But it also never went away. When it took a 37-35 lead barely five minutes into the second half, it was easy to envision a third consecutive win this season against a rival it for so long struggled to beat even once.

Auriemma was still at it on the sidelines, giving Caroline Doty an earful as she came to the bench after a miscue and soon thereafter physically propelling her back to the scorer's table when Hayes drew his ire.

And yet the focus felt as if it shifted at some point during the second half, Auriemma fading into the background as the game came down to a few decisive moments. It was Hartley who hit a step-back jumper to give her team a 41-37 lead and celebrated with a fist pump, a sizable show of emotion by her standards. And while it came in the press the coach designed and at the speed he demanded, it was Hartley on the ensuing possession who read a Diggins pass like a free safety, made the interception and streaked in for a score. It was Hartley who got the crowd roaring so loudly that you couldn't hear the whistle blow a few feet away to signal Notre Dame's timeout.

Appearances to the contrary, the man in charge is exactly aware of how little control he really has at a certain point.

"Because so much is out of your control, you have to recruit the kind of kids that believe in what you're doing and who buy into everything you're doing," Auriemma said. "Because ultimately, they're going to have to make the plays that are going to determine the game. I don't think I was any smarter tonight than I was a week ago Monday. …

"Other than setting an agenda for a team, I don't think coaches can control as much as they think they can. The one thing we wanted to control tonight was what our approach was. Whether we won the game or not, that wasn't necessarily within our control. But our approach to the game was definitely within our control. How difficult it would be for them to rebound the ball was certainly within our control."

Auriemma said he told his players at halftime that he thought they were the better team on this night. And on this night, they were. It doesn't mean they will be should these teams meet again, presumably not before the Final Four in Denver, and it doesn't mean the Huskies are guaranteed to get that far. What it does mean is they know how they can get there, which was decidedly not the case little more than a week ago.

"We'll have to work really hard to try to hold on to this thing that we have right now," Auriemma said.

At least they have a blueprint. From the coach with 800 wins to the freshman with the sweet shot, they worked hard for the title they earned Tuesday night.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.

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

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