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UConn has a Garden Party: 88 and counting…

December 19, 2010 – 10:03 PM

By Laura Pappano

Never mind that the crowd in Madison Square Garden – 15,232 the second largest in the venue for women’s basketball — were on their feet in the final minutes chanting “Eighty-eight! Eighty-eight!

The UConn Women’s Basketball team made it look like just another 31-point win (they beat Ohio State 81-50 box score here). After the crowd’s standing O – stands remained full at the buzzer despite the blowout because, honestly, this is what they came for – the UConn women congratulated their opponents – and OK headed to center court for a few photos.

Fans were pumped to see this team tie UCLA’s 1970’s –era record of 88 wins, but the players didn’t betray giddy excitement. In fact, with minutes on the clock and a time-out called, coach Geno Auriemma was there, pushing, perfecting. Winning is work. This is simply what it looks like.

In the week before Christmas the Maggie Dixon Classic was a like a gift to women’s basketball fans: A non-March-Madness event that drew numbers and excitement. Organizers in coming years – when there is not a streak-breaking moment at hand – should seek match-ups that showcase the competition in women’s basketball.

As loud as UConn fans were during the second of the double-header games, the first match up against an out-of-synch Rutgers and a dynamic Texas A&M (watch them come March) lacked drama. Rutgers made Texas look like UConn. (Final score: 79-50).

UConn-Ohio State (#6) was the obvious event. It started with Ohio State’s Brittany Johnson putting up two threes before UConn’s Bria Hartley was called to the free throw line. Hartley sunk two to put UConn on the boards. UConn fans, who remain standing and clap at the start of each half until the team scores, could finally sit down. For fans, it was a Garden Party.

Sure, there were turnovers and – yeeks – too many traveling calls. But UConn basketball these days is about persistence, not perfection. They execute – and when they misfire, they turn right around and attack.

What does UConn do so well? What makes this team – a team that Auriemma has pointed out is not studded with stars (save Maya Moore)?

1.     They are strong defensively. When Ohio State went up to shoot, at least two UConn defenders (and often three) were there, hands up, forcing a bad shot or flat out rejecting. UConn’s talented 6’5” freshman center, Stefani Dolson, pulled down 15 rebounds. Ohio State rarely got an open look.

2.     Maya Moore. She can shoot. She was 3 for 3 from 3-point territory (and yeah, once from the NBA  3-point line). And despite double coverage she can drive into the paint like a whirling dervish and then delicately slip the ball into the net. She scored 22 points this outing. More importantly, she can steal, distribute the ball, and lead. And credit Tiffany Hayes, who put up 24 points.

3.     The whole team knows how to pass, how to cut and surprise opponents, with ball and player arriving in the right spot at the right moment. Like a relay team with a sense of intuitive timing they cut/pass/catch/pass/cut/catch. It’s like watching a drumming solo in a rock concert. You hold your breath, riveted by the intensity and focus  until the final cymbal clash/score.

Much will be said and written about this game and Tuesday’s, in which UConn will likely overtake Wooden’s streak. Auriemma, who wouldn’t talk about the streak a few months back, is now addressing it head on. The debaters will debate. But in the end those who don’t recognize that this team’s accomplishments are as stunning as UCLA’s were in the 1970s, will simply look – well – as if history has passed them by. Expect Tuesday night being just another 30-plus-point win.

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