Ettinger: How ‘bout them Huskies?

Chances are you didn’t catch even a minute of the most important sporting event of the week. And you call yourself a real sports fan. You’re not alone, however, in your apathy. Most of the nation missed the UConn women’s basketball team slip past second-ranked Baylor, 65–64, en route to its 80th consecutive victory. Indeed, the game was lost amidst a flurry of ESPN headlines about the Louisville men’s team, Cam Newton’s father, and Michael Vick’s fantasy coronation. It’s true — women’s basketball really gets no love.

But I’m not writing to proselytize about your disregard for the sport. Instead, I’m simply writing to tell you all about a great game that you probably missed. If you call yourself a sports fan, you really do need to know what happened on Tuesday night.

You may already know about UConn’s incredible streak. The Huskies had won an astonishing 79 consecutive games going into Tuesday’s showdown against Baylor. It’s impossible to overstate how impressive this streak is. Basketball is not a sport where the better team wins every game. Stringing together just a few wins can be tough enough — just ask the Kansas men’s team that was upset by lowly Northern Iowa in the 2010 NCAA tournament. UConn’s past two seasons haven’t just been championship seasons; they’ve been undefeated, 39–0 championship seasons. Their current winning streak sits only eight shy of the NCAA basketball record, set by the legendary UCLA men’s teams of the 1970s.

It’s not just the wins they’ve piled up, however. Even more impressive is just how lop-sided their victories have been. Since the streak began two years ago, UConn has won all but one game by double digits. Their first game this season, against Holy Cross, was a 117–37 victory. That’s not a typo. Indeed, the Husky Express was steaming along with absolute ease. That is, until Tuesday.

The game was fitted with as much drama as can befall the second game of a 40-game season. UConn, fresh off its second consecutive national championship, retained its number-one national ranking. However, questions abounded about whether the team could play up to its billing. The squad had graduated the National Player of the Year, center Tina Charles. It was unclear whether 6-5 freshman Stefanie Dolson would prove an adequate replacement. Freshman guard Bria Hartley rounded out a team that was woefully inexperienced outside of senior superstar Maya Moore. Compounding the issue, Moore was really the only player who had experienced a close collegiate game before — in fact, she was one of only two players on the roster who had ever played in a UConn loss. The real questions were: How will the freshmen play, and will the older players be able to cope with adversity? Both questions would prove to be pivotal in the course of the game.

On the other side was Baylor, fresh off a run to the 2010 Final Four. The Lady Bears, returning a powerful squad, had captured the number two national ranking. At the heart of their team sat sophomore Brittney Griner — a lanky 6-8 sophomore center who some have already tabbed as the greatest female player in the NCAA. As it turns out, 6-8 female basketball players are in short supply, and most teams simply have no answer for the proficient scorer and defender.

The game began as most UConn games of the past two years have. Moore, as expected, took charge of the offense, putting up 20 points in the first half and five right after the break to give the Huskies a commanding 44–29 lead early in the second half. Dolson racked up a few fouls, but managed to contain Griner, who at one point went a full 21 minutes without scoring. The game seemed to be following the standard UConn script. Around the middle of the second half, however, things took a dramatic turn.

Baylor went on a run. A big run. The kind of run UConn hasn’t allowed at any point during its streak. Baylor put up an astounding 27 points to UConn’s four. What’s worse, the run seemed to fit the exact script that coach Auriemma had feared. Moore went stagnant, throwing up bricks and tossing picks, and there was no one to pick her up. The UConn offense looked downright awful — when they weren’t getting robbed at midcourt, they were tossing up ugly shots that were missing the backboard by feet. Meanwhile, Griner caught fire, using her length to score at will. Dolson, whose only choice was to defend her aggressively, quickly fouled out. Auriemma replaced her with 6-1 freshman Samarie Walker. Walker, at a 7-inch disadvantage, quickly fouled out as well. During their 27-point run, Griner put up 11—and those 11 were easy buckets. Even more impressive, Griner absolutely shut down the Huskies around the rim. In the course of the game, the Lady Bears put up nine blocks—all by Griner. After the game, Walker summed up her experience pretty well: “I’ve never seen a 6-8 female person before.”

Coach Auriemma called a timeout with 6:51 left on the clock and his team down 56-48. It was by far the largest second-half deficit of their win streak. He issued a challenge to his team, reminding them that they hadn’t been here before and daring them to prove their grit. It was time for the freshmen to prove that the team could play without Charles. It was time for them to prove they could grind out wins.

UConn responded in a big way. An acrobatic “and-one” by Moore and a layup plus two free throws by junior guard Tiffany Hayes brought the Huskies back within three, 55-58.

Then Hartley, the vaunted freshman, caught fire. It began with a three-pointer to tie the game. Then a layup. Then a huge trey to give UConn a 63-60 lead with about two minutes remaining. The eight straight clutch points from Hartley were, without a doubt, the difference in the game.

The teams then traded layups, but a Baylor putback cut the Husky lead to 65–64 with just 36.5 seconds left. Baylor then let UConn kill their 35-second shot clock. With just four seconds left in the game, Moore put up an airball. Melissa Jones caught the ball for the Lady Bears, but with no timeouts remaining, couldn’t run it down the court fast enough. Her desperate three, leaving her hands well after the expiration of the game clock, fell harmlessly feet before the rim.

And that’s how UConn won its 80th consecutive game — by far the closest of its incredible streak. What’s next for the Huskies? Potential wins 81-87 are against unranked opponents. After that, they play seventh-ranked Ohio State at Madison Square Garden for a chance to tie the lofty mark of the UCLA men. The next game, which would potentially pop the record at 89, is at home against a Florida State team currently ranked 16th.

In order to win all of those games, the Huskies are going to have to continue to work on mixing in their talented freshmen. They got solid play from their centers on Tuesday, but even that is going to have to improve. Maya Moore will continue to lead the offense and the clubhouse, but she can’t do it alone. More than anything, this team is going to need to remember what it feels like to claw out a victory. You can bet the Huskies have a huge target on their backs — the road to 89 certainly won’t be paved with gold.

John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.

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