UConn's scare against Baylor may be perfect wake-up call for final
Maya Moore and Tina Charles were UConn's go-to stars during crunch time
Charles (21 points, 13 boards) actually outplayed Baylor star Brittney Griner
UConn, winner of 77 straight, has a rematch with Stanford in Tuesday's final
SAN ANTONIO -- Bodacious. Resplendent. Jordanesque. Pick any adjective you want for Maya Moore, then try to top it because UConn would not be playing Tuesday night for its second consecutive national championship without her. She scored 34 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, but her true value was of a psychological nature. Anytime UConn needed a basket to be reminded that it was, well, UConn, Moore was there. Brittney Griner might one day lead Baylor to a national championship, but one thing still remains clear at the women's Final Four: Goliath is alive and well and wearing No. 23 for Connecticut. In the NCAA tourney, Moore is shooting an absurd 60.7 percent (17 of 28) from three-point range and 60.2 from the field (44 of 73). "She's the national player of the year, isn't she?" said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. "That's what they do. National players of the year don't get rattled."
The final margin of victory (70-50) does not reflect how difficult the game was for UConn (38-0). It was intense and physical and probably caused some in Connecticut to call their cardiologists. For those who hoped the night would be a transformational moment for women's basketball, the game in which an up-and-coming star leads her team over the defending titans of the sport, they nearly had their storyline. Trailing by 13 after the first half, Baylor opened the final 20 minutes on a 10-2 run while UConn missed nine of its first 10 shots. When Morghan Medlock hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 41-38 with 14:55 to play, the pro-Baylor crowd and those at home were thinking the same thing: Something historic was brewing in San Antonio. Even NBA star Kevin Durant was into it, writing on his Twitter account that "Griner got them UConn girls scared to go to da basket."
Moore, at least, was not scared. She was jacked up for the semifinal on Saturday, telling associate head coach Chris Dailey she wished they could play that day. When she finally hit the Alamodome court, she scored 11 of UConn's first 13. She had 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting in the first half alone. "[When they cut it to three] I looked up as I was inbounding the ball at my four other teammates on the floor, and all I saw was positive body language and just attitude in their eyes," Moore said. "I saw that and I said: Let's go. Then we picked it up, got a steal right off the bat, and never looked back."
Some of it was luck and much of it was senior center Tina Charles, who outplayed Griner and finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds (including nine in the second half). After Medlock's free throws, Moore took a 17-footer that was partially blocked by Griner. But the ball took a fortunate turn for UConn and fell into the waiting arms of Charles in the post, who bullied over a pair of smaller players to give UConn a 43-38 lead. Charles followed with a basket over Griner to extend the lead to seven. Then Moore took over. She hit a jumper, delivered a gorgeous assist to a cutting Kalana Greene, hit a layup and finally another jumper. Suddenly, UConn could breathe again.
"Going into the game, you're always trying to conjure up all these different scenarios that may or may not come up that you're going to have to deal with," said UConn coach Geno Auiremma as he sat with Charles and Moore after the game. "The one scenario that I didn't conjure up was our two starting guards (sophomores Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes) going 1 for 14. But these two players up here were just absolutely amazing because they had to do it all by themselves pretty much. I can't say enough about them and especially in the second half what they did."
UConn went right at the 6-8 Griner at the start, with Hayes scoring on a driving layup right over the center's outstretched arm. Charles initially had problems with Griner's length, and Baylor's center altered plenty of shots during the game. When Griner was able to get low position on Charles, The Associated Press Player of the Year, she showed terrific touch. UConn put two players on her for most of the night, with either Moore or Doty fronting her and Charles behind her. Griner finished with 13 points, six rebounds and five blocks (she finished with an NCAA record 223 blocks this season), but was ultimately outplayed by a more experienced premier talent. It won't happen many more times during the rest of her career. "I told Brittney: I know a lot of four-time All-Americans that didn't make it to a Final Four until their senior year," Mulkey said. "You brought your team here as a freshman. Build on it."
Baylor (27-10) will be a preseason Top 3 team and Auriemma said that UConn will play the Lady Bears early next season. Keep that in mind if the 77-game winning streak is still active. "All I can say is teams just better watch out because what they [Baylor's freshmen] did in their first year is huge," said Medlock. "No freshmen do that unless you're talking about a Maya Moore or a Tina Charles."
But Griner is a discussion for next season. UConn has now won 77 consecutive games and has a familiar opponent in the NCAA final: The Huskies defeated Stanford 80-68 on Dec. 22 in Hartford, a game the Cardinal (36-1) led for 8 minutes, 49 seconds in the first half and 44-42 with 17:19 remaining before a 30-6 UConn run. That game was a national coming-out party for Stanford sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike, a lithe 6-2 forward who will be a major headache for Auriemma. Ogwumike is bigger than most small forwards and she's added a medium-range jumper this season. Against Oklahoma, she had a double-double with more than 17 minutes to go and finished with a career-high 38 points and 16 rebounds. The only person on the court seemingly capable of guarding her was the Stanford Tree mascot.
Ogwumike's 38 points is the second-highest indvidual scoring game in the history of the Final Four, behind only the 47 points Sheryl Swoopes scored against Ohio State in the 1993 title game. Moore's 34 points ranks fourth on the list. She will guard Ogwumike in the title game.
"She's developed faster than any sophomore in the country," Moore said. "She has a lot of confidence right now and she uses her body well. It's going to be a tough battle. I personally just want to play the best. I want to be challenged. I want to compete. And Stanford has proven themselves to be that team."
Auriemma looked drained after the game, but he smiled when asked if he was still comfortable when the score gets uncomfortable. "I really enjoyed coaching the game tonight," Auriemma said. "I thought it was a lot of fun. We've played a lot of basketball this year, and there haven't been a lot of opportunities where we've been challenged and we've been pushed to that extent that we were tonight. I enjoy that. I get a kick out of it. Just like Maya said, 'We like the challenge. We like the competitiveness of the game.' It makes you feel like you really accomplished something at the end of the night. That's how we feel tonight. Like we really earned that win. Like we really accomplished something."
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