- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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STORRS, Conn. -- We'll learn this weekend whether the time has arrived for the Heisman Trophy to go to a player who spends time exclusively on the defensive side of the ball. This week already demonstrated why a player who does much of her work on defense ought to be in the conversation for some of college basketball's individual honors.
And why a team with its share of imperfections this early in the season therefore remains perfect in the standings.
Kelly Faris wasn't the star in No. 2 Connecticut's 67-52 win against No. 10 Penn State, not in the manner she was just 72 hours earlier when she came close to a triple-double in a win against No. 9 Maryland. Top honors Thursday against Penn State went to sophomore teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Coming off a leg injury that caused her to miss the second half of Monday's game and left her status against the Lady Lions in doubt until the last minute, Mosqueda-Lewis turned in one of the best performances of a young career. She finished with 25 points, five rebounds and four steals, including 17 points in the second half.
But if the Huskies found a way to pull ahead in no small part because their leading scorer made play after play when it mattered most, Penn State missed an opportunity because its All-American scorer, Maggie Lucas, couldn't get anything going until it was too late to matter. Just like Faris' defense had frustrated and flummoxed Maryland All-American Alyssa Thomas a few nights earlier. Never mind that Lucas is a 5-foot-9 shooting guard who runs off screens like the second coming of Reggie Miller and Thomas is a 6-2 point-forward as comfortable with her back to the basket as she is with the ball in her hands at the top of the key.
Two games, four days. Nine minutes on the bench. Two All-Americans neutralized.
Lucas finished with 15 points against Connecticut but five of those points came only after her team fell behind by 21 in the closing minutes. When the door was open a crack for Penn State, she generally didn't have room to breathe.
"We would put Kelly on any person in the country and know that she's going to do a great job," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "Know that Kelly's going to give it her all, she's going to be diving on the floor, she's going to get us steals and she does it every single game."
Teams combine for 38 fouls
If Monday's game against Maryland was a physical exercise with redeeming qualities as an example of a milieu, this game was sadly something less. The whistle that blew to register a foul on Penn State's Dara Taylor three seconds after the tip was a sign of things to come. The final stats showed total field goals (43) edging total fouls (38) but lagging behind total turnovers (46). The first minute of the second half alone took nearly five minutes to play, and featured a personal foul, a technical foul, a jump ball, a timeout and a turnover. Oh, and a field goal, although those seemed at times incidental on this night.
Penn State's Coquese Washington said the officials didn't treat it like a game between top-10 teams. And she was the one who didn't get a technical during the game. Connecticut's Geno Auriemma was of a similar mind.
"When the game's played the way it was played tonight, it's impossible to get any kind of rhythm going, any kind of flow going," Auriemma said. "You're just trying to survive the offensive set and hope that you can make a play because in terms of running any offense, that just wasn't going to happen."
In that void, Mosqueda-Lewis shot 61.5 percent from the field against the Lady Lions, including 57.1 percent from the 3-point line. The rest of her teammates shot 34.9 percent from the field and 8.3 percent from the 3-point line. Already one of the purest shooters in the country, she was much more than that in this game. Mosqueda-Lewis knocked down the 3-pointer, sure, but the signature move came with her back to the basket in the second half. The Huskies up just six points with a little more than 10 minutes to play, she spun hard to her right against Lucas, hit the shot, drew a foul and completed the three-point play for a 45-36 lead.
Two quick Connecticut field goals off Penn State turnovers against the press extended the lead to 49-35, and the game was effectively over.
"She's added a lot to her game," Faris said of Mosqueda-Lewis. "I'm extremely proud of her because she knew what she was last year and she knows what she needs to be this year. She's made a very conscious effort to change it and to be more of an all-around player. She's obviously the scorer and 3-point shooter, and now she's getting in the lane more so than she did last year. And defensively, a whole new person."
But in the muck and mire of an ugly game, Faris again played her part in stabilizing things. No player does more without scoring.
Other than being a basketball junkie, Faris fails to meet the stereotype of an Indiana kid raised shooting jumpers from dawn to dusk, even though she is from Indianapolis. This is the state where Steve Alford filled high school gyms and Miller owned the capital. Hollywood didn't make a movie about a kid named Jimmy Chitwood (or Bobby Plump, in the real-life version of "Hoosiers") because he was so good at getting over screens and denying the ball. This is the state of Rick Mount and Larry Bird. Heck, even the football team escaped years mired at the bottom of the league only when Peyton Manning arrived, now supplanted by Andrew Luck doing the same. Offense rules.
The local player Faris liked watching? The former NFL defensive player of the year, of course.
"When Bob Sanders used to play for the Colts, he used to be one of my favorites," said Faris, who grew up watching her brother play safety. "It's fun to watch them because they'll sit there, and you see their mind kind of go back and forth and their eyes are watching everything. You've got to be a smart player to be that position. I think it's fun to watch people who understand the game, whatever game they're playing, and are able to read different things."
Auriemma said Tamika Williams was the player who most readily came to mind in terms of being able to stop two players so different in style as Lucas and Thomas in quick succession. Like Faris, Williams wasn't the player who received the most attention, not on a roster that included Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi. But the reason Connecticut always seems to win games like this by double-digit margins is as much because of players like Faris and Williams as Bird and Mosqueda-Lewis. It has players who do whatever they do well better than anyone else -- or who at least try every day to do so.
"I think that says a lot about an athlete and their work ethic and their heart and passion for a game," Faris said of her penchant for watching defense, regardless of sport. "I think when you really look at the whole picture and how people play defense in any sport, that's usually where the hustle plays come from, and you can kind of tell who is going to be that person and who is not."
Connecticut has that person. There is time for the rest of the picture to fall into place.
17dBonnie D. Ford