Early Lessons From Baylor-UConn Clash
Here are a few random musings from what Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma rightly called "a hell of a ballgame."
Auriemma is correct when he said before the season that the Huskies' unbeaten streak -- now at 80 games -- will end this year.
There's simply too much of a drop-off between UConn's best player, senior forward Maya Moore, and the next best player, who has yet to reveal herself, for the Huskies to make up for an off night from Moore.
"They don't have the depth, for one,'' said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey after the Huskies' 65-64 win Tuesday night. "They're much younger. He's like the rest of us now. He's trying to find the right players to play and I don't think he's had to do that in a while. He's got to find the right combinations to help him play."
As it was, the Huskies needed every one of Moore's 30 points, as well as a tactical blunder by Mulkey in the closing seconds, to hold off the Lady Bears, whom they vanquished in last April's national semifinals.
While many believe that Connecticut will keep winning all the way to a late December showdown at Stanford, the streak could actually end as early as Sunday's road game with Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets return virtually their entire lineup from a roster that went to their fourth straight NCAA tournament last year. Georgia Tech is athletic enough to stay with the Huskies. And with feisty coach MaChelle Joseph leading them at home, the Yellow Jackets will not be afraid of the Huskies' mystique.
That said, it's not hard to draw up a scenario in which the Huskies three-peat in April. Auriemma's five freshmen took a big step forward Tuesday and led the Huskies back when they swallowed a 15-point, second-half lead and fell behind by eight with seven minutes to go.
"If I could have written a scenario, I don't know that I could have written it better," said Auriemma. "For all the things you wanted to come out of the game so that you could help your team move on, I can't think of anything. It's the second game of the year, and there's a lot of pressure on these kids. A lot more than you think."
In particular, forward Samarie Walker surrendered seven inches of height to Baylor's Brittney Griner, but held her ground in pushing the lithe Griner around the block.
Perhaps the biggest revelation was point guard Bria Hartley. After looking lost in the first half, Hartley, who has taken over quarterbacking the offense in the absence of injured Caroline Doty, was brilliant in the final mad push, hitting the game-tying and go-ahead three-pointers in the last four minutes.
Said Moore of Hartley: "I don't really know what was going on in her head. I don't think there was much going on. She was just playing."
When the laughter in the interview room died down from her apparent faux pas, Moore continued, "When you've got to hit shots, you can't really think about a whole lot. At times, we were kind of over-thinking or not relaxing and playing within the flow of our offense. When she hits shots like that, you know that she's in a zone and she's focused and she's just trying to get the win. I'm just so proud of the way she had my back."
And then there's the spectacular Moore, who scored 20 in the first half Tuesday. Just as the vaunted Diana Taurasi single-handedly lifted the Huskies to a championship in her senior year, Moore may need to do the same this year if Connecticut is to win. And she is capable of doing just that.
Meanwhile, the Baylor squad, playing in its fourth game in five days, demonstrated that last year's Final Four berth was hardly a fluke, and that, in the long run, they may be the nation's strongest national title contender.
The Lady Bears have a ton of relatively young talent. Mulkey has four sophomores, including Griner, in her starting lineup. In addition, she has a pair of transfer sophomores, forwards Brooklyn Pope, in from Rutgers, and Destiny Williams, who is eligible to play Dec. 20 after leaving Illinois. Baylor also has a couple of precocious freshmen in the rotation, including guard Odyssey Sims, who missed a desperation three at the buzzer that would have won it.
In other words, there are a lot of new parts to work in and it will take a while for Baylor to get polished. But with an ambitious early-season schedule that includes meetings with Michigan State, Notre Dame and Tennessee -- all in Waco, Texas -- the Lady Bears may take a step or two backward before they get it together.
"I thought you saw a team with one senior on the floor in an environment with a win streak and all you guys here (media) and it never fazed these kids," said Mulkey. "They just kept grinding and grinding and figuring out ways to try to compete. I learned a lot about us."
Perhaps the person who was fazed by the environment was Mulkey, who has taken Baylor to 10 postseason appearances in her decade in Waco, including a 2005 title.
She may need some time to figure out just what she has -- witness the end of Tuesday's game. After Griner had blocked a Hartley shot with eight seconds left in the game and two on the shot clock, Auriemma called timeout to set up a shot, with Connecticut leading by one. When the Huskies returned to the floor, Mulkey called time after seeing UConn's alignment.
Which is reasonable, except it left Baylor without a timeout so that her team could set up a last-second shot, perhaps a lob to the 6-foot-8 Griner. Moore missed the shot, and the Lady Bears came up with the loose ball, leaving Sims to charge down the floor where she missed a wild 30-foot attempt.
Mulkey contended after the game that there should have been a shot-clock violation on Moore's shot, and the buzzer could be heard after the attempt. However, a Big East official issued a statement after the game that Baylor's possession began when they gathered in the loose ball and there was no need for the ball to be inbounded.
Nonetheless, the Lady Bears served notice in November that they will be in the mix in April.
"Do you see us crying? Could we have won the game?," said Mulkey. "We're going to go home and get ready for Michigan State. I learned that I got a talented basketball team and y'all better keep writing about them."