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UConn relishes defense

A stingy attitude powers Huskies

By Dave Caldwell
New York Times / March 25, 2012
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Women who play basketball usually go to Connecticut with spectacular dossiers that highlight their abilities to put a ball into a basket. Coach Geno Auriemma likes it that way because he can get them to concentrate on less glamorous responsibilities, like playing defense.

“One of the beauties of having a bunch of really good players is that not all of them are as good as they think they are,’’ Auriemma said last week. “That’s really rewarding.’’

For every transcendent player at UConn - Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, and, perhaps now, freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis - more players were merely high school All-Americans, or the best from their states.

Competition for playing time is intense, and the tipping point can be how tenacious and ferocious a player is at defending, rebounding, and diving for balls. These are the kinds of high school All-Americans that Auriemma and his staff want - and can get.

“If you have a bunch of players on your team that are of that level,’’ he said, “you tell them, ‘Either you play defense, or I’m going to put someone in there who looks just like you who’s going to play defense.’ We’re not being held hostage by our best players.’’

Auriemma added: “Our best players aren’t going to say: ‘I’m not going to play defense, and what are you going to do about it? Who are you going to put in ahead of me?’ I can say, ‘Well, that guy, right there.’ They buy into it because, No. 1, they’re winners and competitors.’’

The Huskies (31-4) reached the Round of 16 for the 19th straight year with a 72-26 rout of Kansas State. The Huskies play Penn State (26-6) in a regional semifinal Sunday in Kingston, R.I., and hope to make the Final Four for the fifth straight year.

Auriemma has made it clear, in his pithy way, that this is not a typical UConn powerhouse. The Huskies are not as explosive as many of the other teams he has coached, including the seven that won national titles.

“Our defense always sparks our offense,’’ sophomore center Stefanie Dolson said. “When we have games where we’re playing really good defense, usually, we’re going to score more and do better offensively because we can get out in transition.’’

UConn is threatening to break two team records, both set last season, after holding Kansas State to a record low number of points (26) for an NCAA women’s game - the Wildcats made 10 of 57 shots from the field.

Kansas State (20-14), which scored 65 points against No. 1-ranked Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, had trouble against UConn’s press. Then the Wildcats had trouble running plays because players were forced into places they did not want to go.

The Huskies did much the same in the Big East championship game against Notre Dame, a team they had lost to twice in the regular season. The Fighting Irish shot 27.6 percent from the floor and had seven turnovers after halftime in a 63-54 loss.

Auriemma said after beating Kansas State that he never expected his team to set a defensive record. Penn State has scored 175 points in two tournament games, so the Huskies may not set another one.

Should the Huskies reach the Final Four in Denver, Auriemma said, only his first UConn team to make the Final Four, in 1991, would have been a greater overachiever. These Huskies have worked hard to excel.

“There are times like this year,’’ Auriemma said, “when I’ll tell you, I don’t know if we’re good enough to win it all, unless something happens, or unless these guys prove to me that we have what it takes. I didn’t know that going in.’’

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