UConn passes test from BYU
Huskies stayed calm, seized control to overcome less-than-stellar day
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Just as we assume Meryl Streep never has trouble getting in character, we tend to think Connecticut's women's basketball team doesn't really have to "grind" in the sports sense of the word. You know, the extra effort you have to put into doing something when you don't have your best stuff, when things seem clunky and off-kilter.
There are so many times the Huskies make precision on court seem automatic, you can be surprised when that doesn't happen. A far bigger surprise, though, would be if they didn't adjust accordingly to being less than their spectacular selves.
"We can grind it out," UConn guard Moriah Jefferson said after the defending national champs' 70-51 victory over BYU on Saturday in the Lincoln Regional semifinals. "The thing people don't see is practice. Because there, every day is a struggle. We have to grind and grind."
OK, but UConn's "grind" is still more glamorous than your average grind. To say the top-seeded Huskies survived a scare from the No. 12 seed Cougars would be pushing it too far, even if UConn did lead by just one point, 30-29, at halftime.
It was more like the Huskies proved to themselves how scare-proof they are in this undefeated season. At halftime, they took a calm look at what had gone wrong in the first half. Then they steadily seized control early in the second half, as the grind eventually became more of the standard glide.
Of course, not all UConn watchers will feel this way. They will point to the first half and be worried by an overwhelmingly favored team that missed shots it normally makes and seemed flustered by the big shots that BYU was hitting. They will dread the potential gloom and doom if the Huskies play like that against No. 3 seed Texas A&M, UConn's foe in Monday's regional championship game (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET). The Aggies won Saturday's second semifinal here 84-65 over DePaul.
As in the first game, Texas A&M's victory was by 19 points. But the two games "felt" different, despite the identical margin of victory. The Aggies appeared in control pretty much the entire time in the nightcap. UConn was frustrated just enough in the first half to put some fleeting demons in coach Geno Auriemma's head.
"I thought, 'How in the hell am I going to answer these damn questions these guys [are] going to ask me after the game?'" Auriemma said wryly of an interrogation that didn't end up happening.
But had Auriemma actually wound up in that position, it would have been an even bigger upset than last year's Sweet 16 shocker, when Louisville stunned Baylor. However, things never got anywhere near that tense Saturday. In the second half, the BYU carriage became a pumpkin, thanks in part to the Huskies' just-enough-improved shooting in the final 20 minutes and a better showing on defense.
What if it had been regional host and No. 4 seed Nebraska taking on the Huskies? Of course, we'll never know, since Nebraska fell in the second round and didn't get to test its mettle against UConn.
Yet even without the beloved hometown team here at Pinnacle Bank Arena, the Huskers fans showed up in admirable numbers. The attendance was 9,585, and they got to see UConn eventually go into beast mode.
"They are bigger and stronger," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said of the Huskies. "And they just ended up wearing us down."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was coming off a triple-double in UConn's second-round victory over Saint Joseph's, had another big game with 19 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists.
Breanna Stewart, despite going 0-for-6 from behind the arc, finished with 16 points. Bria Hartley had 12 points and Jefferson 11, while center Stefanie Dolson matched BYU 6-foot-7 counterpart Jennifer Hamson with nine points and 13 rebounds.
"In the first half, they made a lot of tough shots," Stewart said. "But in the second half, we got them out of their rhythm. We do feel confident in what we can do as a team.
"Coach said at halftime that he just wanted us to keep our heads in the game. A lot of us were probably frustrated -- I know I was -- because shots weren't falling. We had to go out and play the second half like nothing bad had happened in the first half."
Meanwhile, the Aggies had five players in double figures against DePaul, and Courtney Walker's game-high 25-point output was not her only major contribution to the game. She played exceptional defense as well, which is something the Aggies as a program are known for. Point guard Jordan Jones, who had 11 points and six assists, was also top-notch defensively.
Texas A&M doesn't have anyone as big as Hamson, nor do the Aggies shoot 3-pointers the way the Cougars do. In fact, in the win against DePaul, Texas A&M took just two 3-pointers, missing both. And still won by a comfortable margin.
The Aggies went with straight-up player-to-player defense against the Blue Demons, who had been so successfully aggressive in their second-round upset of Duke.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said he plans on doing much the same thing against UConn, although he will have to go with a bigger lineup than he has generally used this season.
"My four-guard lineup will go out the window now," Blair said. "We'll try to put as many trees as we can out there against Connecticut."
Texas A&M's depth is much more at the perimeter than inside. And when you consider that UConn has Stewart and Dolson --- Blair called them the best interior duo in the women's college game this season -- Texas A&M's challenge comes into full focus.
Blair is realistic, but not pessimistic. Hey, he does have a national championship of his own, won in 2011. The Aggies didn't have to beat UConn to get that crown three years ago. But in the Final Four that year, the Aggies beat two teams that had wins over UConn that season: Stanford and Notre Dame.
"Folks, they counted us out in 2011," Blair said. "Don't count Aggies out."
No one will, least of all UConn. But the problem for Texas A&M -- for anybody facing these Huskies, in fact -- is that even on a less-than-stellar day, they were still more than good enough.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UConn beat Notre Dame 79-58 to cap a 40-0 season to win it second consecutive NCAA title and record ninth championship overall.