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Trouble in Storrs

UConn women facing four problems

Posted: Tuesday February 1, 2005 1:47PM; Updated: Tuesday February 1, 2005 5:00PM
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Jacqueline Batteast
Notre Dame's Jacqueline Batteast shoots over UConn's Nicole Wolff in Sunday's win in Storrs.

Allow me to preface this column by reminding you (and me) that the University of Connecticut women have won four of the last five national championships. They've been to five consecutive Final Fours. Which means, yes, I'm about to lay the hammer down on them, but only because head coach Geno Auriemma and his inveterate staff (Chris Dailey, Jamelle Elliott and Tanya Cardoza, all of whom have been in Storrs for at least eight seasons) have set the bar so high in the first place.

Besides, if I announced that I was devoting an entire column to one of those ubiquitous feel-good women's hoops stories ("born without a forehead, Sherry McTinklefeather still manages to average a double-double for ShinyHappy State"), you'd already be typing in the URL for pickthehottie.com (oh, don't think I don't know; frankly, you disgust me).

Yes, it's difficult for me to be dispassionate when it comes to UConn. I spent an entire season with the Huskies in 2000-01 for a book that I wrote entitled The Same River Twice (it's now available in your grocer's freezer ... or perhaps Amazon). That and the fact that their most famous alumna (Rebecca Lobo) married a good friend of mine (Steve Rushin), thereby rescuing him a lifetime diet of Domino's Pizza and an interminable future of late nights at The Emerald Inn with SI writer-reporter Mark Beech and myself, compiling lists such as "Sports terms that sound dirty but aren't" ("toeing the rubber", "lighting the lamp", etc.).

Anyway, on Sunday the UConn women lost their first home Big East regular-season conference game in nearly 12 years as Notre Dame defeated the Huskies 65-59. UConn had gone 112 games without a regular-season Big East loss at either Gampel Pavilion or the Hartford Civic Center (HCC). Astute followers of the women's game will remember that UConn did lose at the HCC just last March to conference-foe Boston College. That, however, was in the Big East tournament semifinals, and thus technically not a home game. Sunday's defeat was UConn's first at on-campus Gampel Pavilion in 55 games (nearly four seasons), that being a one-point loss to Tennessee in 2001.

Afterward Auriemma, the king of candor, explained why UConn, which lost five games total the previous three seasons, has already lost its fifth of this one. "Our guards are not good and today we were exposed," he said.

That's true. Here's what this avid Husky observer sees:

1. An absolute absence of a fast break. The Huskies of Jen Rizzotti, Rita Williams, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi ran ceaselessly. Those four point guards were also outstanding when it came to forcing turnovers, which catalyze fast breaks, which lead to easy and demoralizing buckets. No one was better at this, by the way, than Bird.

2. An absence of anyone who can break a defender down off the dribble. Again, Auriemma has been blessed with some of the best point guards to play women's hoops over the past dozen years (see the aforementioned foursome). This year he has nobody.

3. Players who, while gifted offensively, do not complement one another in a half-court set. Junior wing Ann Strother buried seven 3s Sunday and had 25 points. Freshman Charde Houston had 25 points versus Texas earlier this month. Junior Barbara Turner, who lit up Notre Dame for that many as a frosh two years ago, is capable of a big game. Turner, who does not start, is the Huskies' leading scorer. Yet you put them all on the court together in a half-court set and they don't seem to make one another better. UConn doesn't seem to get easy baskets this year, which has long been a trademark of the Huskies.

4. Role players overextending themselves. Ashley Battle and Jessica Moore, both fifth-year seniors, are outstanding hustlers and defenders (as well as being wonderful people off the court). However, the former is not a natural 3-point shooter and the latter is less than money from the elbow. Both attempted too many shots outside their range in the late minutes of Sunday's game, and it sank the Huskies.

UConn, which went 143 months without suffering a regular-season Big East home loss (last time: Feb. 27, 1993, a 64-62 defeat to Georgetown), may go just four days before falling victim again. Next up: No. 9 Rutgers on Feb. 3, which has already knocked off four schools in the top-15 this winter.