- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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KINGSTON, R.I. -- No player in college basketball does more work beyond the point column than Connecticut's Kelly Faris, and yet the numbers on the scoreboard offered a thorough accounting of her work in the Huskies' 77-59 victory Sunday afternoon.
With Faris in the lineup for the first 6 minutes, 21 seconds of a regional semifinal, Connecticut outscored Penn State 20-8 and threatened to run its opponent right out of the Ryan Center.
With the junior guard on the bench for the remainder of the half, Connecticut sweated out a 23-21 advantage.
In either case, the Huskies were the better team. The final score was closer than the action at times in the second half, but it was ultimately fair measure of the difference between a team hoping to reach Tuesday's regional final (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 p.m.) for the first time since 2004 and a team that expects to be on that and subsequent stages every season.
It's just that one way was a lot easier on them.
And a lot more difficult on their opponent.
Connecticut is always going to have players capable of doing things beyond the means of many teams on the offensive end. Most teams don't have Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who kept the Huskies going with a series of jumpers as the Lady Lions made their aforementioned run in the late stages of the first half. Most teams don't have a guard like Bria Hartley, quick enough to get by any defender and too good a shooter to allow defenders to play off. Hartley's name jumps out of the box score for good reason, her 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting more fuel for the fire.
The Huskies can beat almost any team -- certainly any team they will or were likely to face before a potential trip to Denver -- because Geno Auriemma's team has players who can make more plays than the other team. But the difference between the team that played against Penn State with Faris and the team that played without her for those minutes in the first half was the difference between a championship contender that defines itself by defense and a team that isn't always sure what it is.
Faris is the backbone of Connecticut's defense, and defense is the backbone of this Connecticut team.
"The best thing I can say about Kelly, and I've said it to other coaches in the profession and others in Connecticut, is that last year when we lost to Notre Dame was the first time she lost a game in the postseason since eighth grade," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "The kid has lost one game in seven years in the postseason; that's pretty good. I love having guys like that on my team. She finds things to do to help our team."
For all the highlights Connecticut's roster compiled in their high school careers, the plays that first sold Connecticut associate coach Chris Dailey on Faris wouldn't even have made the cut for local news on a slow day. Playing in an AAU tournament, Faris drew two charges on the other team's best player, reading the same play the same way and twice getting to the same spot.
That caught Dailey's eye the same way a 3-pointer from two steps behind the line or a wraparound pass might. Connecticut didn't pursue her at that time, thinking she was set on staying in the state with Purdue or Notre Dame, but once she made it clear that, yes, she might just welcome a call from the Huskies, it took no arm twisting to make the match.
Faris didn't score oodles of points in high school, at least not by the standards of some current and former Huskies. She did win four state titles in a state where that means something. And when she arrived in Storrs, Conn., it didn't take long for her teammates to learn to appreciate the subtle strengths she brought to the court.
Not to mention it's easy to love someone who isn't going to to take your shots.
"Every second we're around each other, she's the hardest worker," teammate Caroline Doty said. "I believe that she is someone everyone wants on their team; we're just lucky that we're playing with her. She's smart, she's athletic. She can block a shot, get a steal, do all the extra work. And for her to have a great game like she did today, you can't be happier for her because it just goes to show all her hard work, it's not unnoticed."
Faris finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block against Penn State, but those stats don't tell half the story. They don't reveal anything about the look of frustration Maggie Lucas wore at times, Penn State's leading scorer unable to get open looks at the basket with Faris around. Lucas finished just 4-of-16 from the floor. They don't reveal anything about the Stefanie Dolson miss that she tipped back to Dolson when the full rebound proved out of reach, the extra possession eventually leading to one of Hartley's jumpers. Or the balls the Lady Lions threw a foot behind a spot where they might prove useful, every look at the basket a challenge for a team that finished with eight assists on 22 field goals.
Penn State didn't make its run late in the first half, one that closed the deficit to five points, solely because Faris wasn't in the game. She isn't Maya Moore in reverse, a one-woman, game-defining presence on the defensive end with whom the Huskies are utterly lost without. But she's closer to that than you might think at first glance. And in her own way, she's the cornerstone of the nation's best field goal defense, one that limited Penn State to 36 percent shooting Sunday. Like a point guard makes her teammates better on offense, Faris makes the other four players alongside her better on defense.
"If you look at us individually, physically we're not going to be intimidating to anyone," Dailey said. "We don't look like we can guard anyone, but it's our team defense that I think is our strength. They buy into what we say, we give them a good scouting report and plan, and they usually do a good job of executing."
Auriemma was pleased with the way the offense executed on the night, but the precision wasn't always the stuff that would worry clockmakers about their job security. The Huskies were at their best offensively in transition, capitalizing on 12 offensive rebounds or the individual work of Mosqueda-Lewis and Hartley. On a night that pretty much everything went her way, even Faris drew Auriemma's full two-armed, full-throated ire at one point in the second half when she threw a bounce pass behind Kiah Stokes in a spot where even a perfect pass wasn't going to do much good. But if the offense was good most of the time, the defense was consistently outstanding.
Connecticut has the potential to be great on any given night on offense. It needs to be great on defense every single night.
It was almost fitting that the last entry Faris made in the box score was a missed 3-pointer in the final minute, a final, defiant, if entirely unintentional, statement that those aren't the numbers by which she should be measured. She doesn't score all that much, doesn't smile all that much and doesn't say all that much, at least on the court, but the team follows her lead nonetheless.
"She leads by example more than anything," Doty said. "But when she talks we're all ready to listen because she's probably the smartest player on our team. We respect that, and we know that when she has something to say, it's going to work, she's going to be right."
The scoreboard said the same thing Sunday night.
13dBonnie D. Ford