March 29, 2012
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STORRS, Conn. (AP) - This was supposed to be Connecticut's rebuilding year.
It's not that anybody expected the Huskies to be bad, or even average. But after losing two-time national player of the year Maya Moore to graduation, they were picked to finish behind Notre Dame in the BIG EAST.
This was supposed to be the year, as coach Geno Auriemma famously predicted in the preseason, that UConn could not win a national championship.
"We're not a team with superstars; we didn't have any pre-season All-Americans so no one really expected us to be as dominant as we have been this year," said guard Bria Hartley, shortly after the Huskies beat Kentucky to earn a trip to Denver, UConn's 13th appearance in a Final Four and fifth straight. "I think we did use that as motivation a little bit."
There were early signs the Huskies might exceed Auriemma's expectations. They beat Stanford by 10 points in November and Texas A&M by 30 in December. They even led Baylor by 11 points in the second half before falling 66-61 in Waco.
"Then for some reason sometime in January and a long time in February, we lost it," Auriemma said. "We stopped getting better. We stopped working at it. We stopped listening. We stopped executing. All of our bad habits and all the things I was fearful of started to rear their ugly heads."
People would make mistakes in practice, not go quite as hard as the coaches wanted. Because they were winning, the players didn't worry about it, Auriemma said.
It came back to bite them in back-to-back home losses to St. John's and Notre Dame near the end of the regular season, snapping what had been a 99-game winning streak in Storrs and Hartford.
Guard Kelly Faris said that's when the team really woke up. Players started to realize that if they were going to make a run at an eighth national title, they would have to work harder and begin playing attention to all those little things.
"We wanted to change, and we wanted to make it fun, and we wanted to make our season last as long as possible," she said. "I think we finally just realized as a whole that what it was going to take was a team effort."
Auriemma said the Huskies may have improved more in the five days between the loss to Notre Dame and the start of the BIG EAST tournament than it had during the past five months.
They've rolled through the postseason, winning games in the BIG EAST and NCAA tournament by an average of 24 points.
They face a familiar foe on Sunday. It will be their eighth meeting with Notre Dame in the last two seasons and a rematch of last year's national semifinal when the Irish beat the Huskies.
Notre Dame has won three of the last four meetings, but UConn took the last one to win the recent BIG EAST tournament title.
Players say they may be a tougher team precisely because they don't have a first-team All-American. Opponents don't know whether to key on center Stefanie Dolson, Hartley, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis or Tiffany Hayes, the team's lone senior, who scored 22 points in the regional final.
"We knew over the last four years, the game plan was always centered around Maya," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "She seemed almost superhuman at times. We never had a good match up for her. We tried different ways to guard her, but never were successful.
"I think in some ways it is a little more difficult when everybody can score because you can't go double team anybody. You can't leave anybody open."
The Huskies say it's not that they don't miss Moore, because they do. It was nice to know they had a player to lean on when things got tough. But now, they have all learned to lean on one another.
"It makes us more deadly, more versatile, just tougher all-around," Hartley said. "Every person has to do their role and do it every game, it makes it more special for everybody."
Guard Caroline Doty said that confidence has everyone on the team believing they can win it all - even Geno.
"I think that coach in the back of his mind knows that we have it in us," she said. "It's just up to us. He'll never admit it now, because he wants to keep us challenged. But it's just how we respond."