March 28, 2005

No D To Break The Fall

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - They had never lost an NCAA Tournament game.

None of them.

Not even the seniors.

The UConn women's basketball team had won 20 NCAA games in a row.

They had won 30 of 31, the only blemish that Final Four night in 2001 across the state of Missouri in St. Louis. A freshman named Diana Taurasi shot 1-for-15, including 0-for-11 on three-pointers, and dreams of successive national titles were flushed away in the second half by Notre Dame.

Taurasi and UConn would go on to win three national titles.

It would have taken the best coaching job of Geno Auriemma's magnificent career to have taken his team past Stanford, Michigan State and probably Tennessee and LSU.

The Huskies didn't get past the first hurdle Sunday night in one of the toughest Sweet 16 matchups in women's college history.

They didn't get past the first hurdle because their offense died in the second half.

They didn't get past the first hurdle because a team that often seemed to master team defense, never mastered the art of ball movement and ball distribution from its young guards.

They didn't get past the first hurdle because Ann Strother couldn't shake Susan King Borchardt. The Huskies' leading scorer, who also was bothered by a neck problem, scored four points.

They didn't get past the first hurdle because their thrilling freshman Charde Houston disappeared with the rest of the team.

"I said going in that this was the hardest type of team for us to play because offensively Stanford has too many things they can do well," Auriemma said. "We came out in the second half, missed four layups, lost our edge. The game turned right then and there.

"The things that we've struggled for most of the season came back to haunt us. When we're good, we're really, really good like we were the first 20 minutes. When we're bad, we're really, really bad like we were in the last 20 minutes. You are who you are."

And this is who the Huskies were since 2000:

Won it all.

Lost in Final Four.

Won it all.

Won it all.

Won it all.

When push came to shove during the previous three championship runs, Auriemma used to say, "Well, we have Diana Taurasi and you don't."

Well, he didn't have Taurasi this year.

And, man, did it ever show in the final 20 minutes of this 17-point loss to Stanford at Municipal Auditorium.

"Making shots was a problem all year long and our defense bailed us out," Auriemma said. "Pretty much this is the best defensive team we've had in a long, long time. But your defense can only bail you out for so long. I said going in this was one game where our offense was going to have to win it. Our offense let us down.

"Stanford's guards are really good. Our guards really struggled in the second half getting the ball where we wanted it to get to."

Folks around the nation are tired of UConn winning every year.

Well, now they can rejoice.

No other current women's college player, other than those who earned them in Storrs, has a championship ring.


And now somebody else will.

"We have four seniors in there who finished their careers with three national championships," Auriemma said. "They got three times as much as most people get. The guys coming back have to start over."

And they'll have to start over thinking about how they took a six-point halftime lead. How they used 10 players, seemed to have more speed and more legs.

It turned out the opposite. UConn went down meekly.

Big Brooke Smith was bodied out in the first half. As a result, she took shots too far from the basket. Freshman Candice Wiggins, the Pac-10 player of the year, was out of control in the first half. UConn did a good job running at her, trapping her and she had five turnovers and two field goals.

The Cardinal got much better spacing offensively in the second half. The Cardinal didn't back down. They scored 49 points in the second half and Wiggins would end up with 21. The Huskies bent and then broke. Tara VanDerveer urged her post players to be more physical in the second half and they were. But UConn bent and then broke because of what happened on the other end of the court.

"The first 20 minutes we were able to dictate the way the game was going to be played, because we made enough shots that allowed us to get into different defenses and keep them off balance," Auriemma said. "They didn't know where our traps were coming from and they had a difficult time getting into any kind of offensive rhythm.

"In the second half, we had an incredibly difficult time scoring points. And because of that, we lost a little bit of our edge defensively. We got deflated. It snowballed."

Stanford simply packed it in and dared UConn to hoist threes in the final minutes.

It grew clear as the season wore on that UConn was going to need more offensive punch. Barbara Turner had 17 points. She can be a go-to player. Strother can make the shot if it's there. It's too much to expect her to take over games.

So just as they fell apart in St. Louis, the Huskies will need to look in the future to somebody in a freshman's clothes.

Charde Houston is their greatest talent. She is going to have to learn to be their best player. In the first half, she had six points, six rebounds, four turnovers, three blocks and three steals in 11 minutes.

She had blocked a shot and raced the length of the court to make a layup. She slammed down another Smith shot. She also inexplicably hoisted her first three of the season. She missed. She threw up another wild jumper. With 54 seconds left before halftime, Auriemma cursed her off the court.

In the second half, the best talent disappeared with the rest of the Huskies.

Make no mistake.

Charde is a thrill a minute.

No, make that a thrill every 30 seconds.

That's the length of the shot clock and that's time enough for Charde to do something wildly entertaining.

That can be good. And that can be awful.

"Charde is quite an enigma," Auriemma said. "She makes plays that make you shake your head and say, `How did she do that?' Then she makes plays that make you shake your head and say `Why did she do that?'"

"I think she wasn't prepared mentally or physically to play 40 minutes in a game like this. She was caught between not doing enough and trying to do too much."

A freshman named Taurasi was awful that night in St. Louis.

Houston should know that. She should also know that she has three more grabs at the ring.

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