Advertisement
  1. Sports

Field's simple aim: Toppling UConn's dynasty

[object Object]
Published Apr. 5, 2015

TAMPA

Defeating the nation's No. 1 team isn't a foolhardy concept in the all-female version of the Final Four. Connecticut's women don't possess quite the cachet of Kentucky's men. The Huskies can lose, have lost. • A precedent exists, sort of. • The Huskies' mortality has been revealed, in a way. • A blueprint for beating them has been manufactured, technically. • Yeah, and technically Vito Corleone sold olive oil for a living. • Who's anyone kidding? While this batch of Huskies (36-1) likely won't land on the program's personalized Mount Rushmore, they remain the prohibitive favorite to capture a third consecutive national title — and 10th overall — at the end of this Final Four. • Or is it Final Formality? • "Every single position is stacked," former Tennessee All-American and nine-time WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings said.

What the Huskies lack in depth (a likely eight-player rotation for the Final Four) they atone for with balance (five players averaging at least 10.4 points).

While their perimeter defense has been sieve-like in spurts, their post play has been impermeable (nation-best eight blocks per game). They have been known to struggle in one half (trailing Dayton by one at intermission) and steam roll the next (beating Dayton by 21).

They won their first four NCAA Tournament games by an average margin of 41 points. Two other Final Four participants, Notre Dame and South Carolina, lost to the Huskies this season by 18 and 25, respectively.

"There isn't anybody that you can double team without them making you pay for it," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.

"Even though they may have a weak link when it comes to perimeter one-on-one defense, they can make up for it … by blocking shots or changing shots or that kind of thing," said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, UConn's first Naismith Award winner.

"I don't think this is one of the greatest (Huskies) teams. I don't know if it's specifically because of the defense, but who cares? They still can win a national championship."

All of which raises one question, as perplexing as it is glaring: How do you beat these Huskies?

For that, one could refer to the lone successful blueprint on file, with one disclaimer: It might be considered obsolete by now.

UConn lost at Stanford, 88-86 in overtime, in its second game of the season. The Huskies blew a late 10-point lead, watched the Cardinal shoot nearly 50 percent from the floor (7-for-14 from 3-point range), and failed to get a final shot off in overtime.

"Stanford was better," Lobo said.

"Connecticut couldn't handle them off the dribble, they couldn't defend off the dribble. And Connecticut wasn't what they are now. (Forward) Morgan Tuck wasn't starting yet, (point guard) Moriah Jefferson still was not confident in her shot. That night Stanford was better."

In the 35 games since, Tuck (14.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) has evolved into an Associated Press honorable mention All-American. Jefferson, who hit eight of her first 26 3-pointers this season, is 43-for-75 from long range since. The rotation has congealed.

As a result, the Huskies have been outscored in a half only three times since that loss.

"The team that beats 'em, you're gonna have to outscore them. That's what we tried to do," said USF coach Jose Fernandez, whose 27-8 club accounted for two of those better halves against UConn (by employing a smaller, faster lineup) but still lost by double digits in all three meetings.

"If it just becomes a halfcourt game … they're too good and they're too good in their set defense."

The most obvious matchup headache is 6-foot-4 All-American Breanna Stewart, the quintessential chameleon in the women's game. Equally effective on the post or perimeter, Stewart has 12 double-figure rebounding games, has recorded five or more assists nine times, has totaled 96 blocks, and has hit 28 treys.

"The first thing you have to do is, you have to try to limit Breanna Stewart. And the problem is, she moves around the court," ESPN analyst and former Tennessee star Kara Lawson said.

"It's not like you can say, 'She catches on the block, we're gonna do this to her.' She plays everywhere and your best shot is to have one player that can come as close to an athlete that she is; someone with a little bit of size, someone with a little bit of athleticism.

"And then that way, they can kind of be there, be able to move with her as she moves around. Maryland (UConn's semifinal foe) doesn't have that, someone that combines the size and the athleticism. They have some athletes that are really good, they have some big players, but they don't have someone that can move around."

Yet Maryland's in the Final Four for a reason. UConn must show up. The Huskies must run some motions, not merely go through them. They can be toppled for stretches. Just ask Stanford or Dayton or USF.

Better yet, ask this: Are we all just kidding ourselves?

"Obviously they share the basketball extremely well," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "Within their offense, they take great shots, and I think where they really hurt people is in their runs. If you're not able to keep up with them from a scoring end, I think that's when the game's over."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.