The University of Connecticut's last two games were against the best of the America East conference.
Although it's a conference that usually only gets its conference tournament winner into the NCAA tournament, both Vermont and Hartford began the season by knocking off a couple of major conference teams. And both teams are hoping those early season wins will be enough to get the runner-up in the conference tournament an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
However, although the two teams are from the same conference, they play contrasting styles: while Vermont is built around senior guards Courtnay Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos, Hartford is built around senior posts Erica Beverley and Diana Delva.
Vermont was in a better position to have offensive success against UConn with their big senior guards versus Hartford's undersized post players, but Hartford did the better job of defense limiting UConn to only 6 fast break points compared to the 32 allowed by Vermont.
Pilypaits played a bit like her favorite player Diana Taurasi did in her last seasons at UConn. She was both Vermont's primary scorer and playmaker as well as the team's strongest and most physical defender. And she was the one Vermont player able to overcome the UConn defense, scoring 20 of Vermont's 42 points.
For Hartford, early foul trouble kept Delva off the floor for most of the first half, but she did score a solid 13 points in the game. Beverley became Hartford's all-time leading rebounder in the game and UConn's Maya Moore commended her physical play after the game, but she only managed 5 points against UConn.
Ultimately, the styles may have been different, but both teams found similar results on the scoreboard. Vermont lost to UConn 42-84 and Hartford lost 35-80. However all three teams played the games concerned about improving as a team, rather than leaving the game with a win or a loss.
Continuing to Build an Identity
Offensively, interior scoring combined with transition offense continued to carry UConn.
Even with Tina Charles only playing 15 minutes and scoring only 10 points against Hartford because of foul trouble in the first half and a minor injury in the 2nd half, UConn still scored 44 of their 80 points in the paint.
On the perimeter, while the team's three point shooting hasn't yet found the consistency to match the team's interior play and passing, these two games saw the team take better care of the ball. UConn committed 10 turnovers against Vermont and 13 against Hartford after committing at least 15 turnovers in 5 of their first 6 games. However, the primary ballhandling duties continue to be fluid.
Against Vermont Caroline Doty and Kelly Faris played the point with Tiffany Hayes playing the supporting off guard role almost exclusively. Against Hartford Hayes returned to being the primary ball handler, although that may have been partly the result of Doty having an implosion in the previous day’s practice, as UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey described on WTIC following the Hartford game. Dailey also indicated Faris was struggling a bit in practice during the week, but credited part of that with Faris getting out of her comfort zone in order to eventually become a better player.
Overall the backcourt still hasn't completely found its equilibrium, but it moved a bit closer during these two games. Although it may find its equilibrium just as Lorin Dixon returns from an hamstring introducing another player into the equation.
Defense Still Strong
Defense continues to be the theme as UConn moves through its schedule.
On his television show on CPTV, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said that the coaching staff hasn't placed a greater than usual emphasis on defense, "We spend a normal amount of time on (defense). We're not obsessed with it. The (players) are really buying into it. They're pretty focused." Auriemma also indicated that the team's current level of defensive play wasn't expected: "I'm surprised that defensively we are playing as well we are playing."
Maya Moore summarized the team's defensive performance this season after the Hartford game, "I think we're just aware. We've been working really hard in practice to get up in the passing lanes. We like to start out really aggressive, denying and forcing the other team to go back door. And we've been doing a great job of getting that back side help and then finishing to off by getting the rebound."
When given the opportunity to discuss what UConn needed to work on with a ten day before their next game Moore stuck to defense, "Our post play, I think we need to improve in that area. It can't be easy for other teams to score on us in the lane. I think we can become an even more dominant rebounding team. People shouldn't be confident that they come in and get a layup against us, and I feel like we gave up more layups than we wanted to today."
Striving for Perfection
How many layups was too many for Maya Moore?
Apparently Hartford's five layups on ten attempts was too much. Moore's answer not only further reinforces the level of commitment this team has to defense, but also indicates the type of standards the coaches and players set at UConn.
Vermont and Hartford were given a chance to test themselves in an environment where every mistake shows up on the scoreboard. A lazy pass results in a layup. Not getting back on defense results in a layup. A miscommunication defending a screen results in a layup. Those same actions may not always show up on the scoreboard against lesser teams.
"I told my team that I'm not disappointed that you couldn't rotate to stop Tiffany Hayes from getting a layup. I'm disappointed you couldn't do it against St. Joesph's. It's a matter of us being a better help rotation team and UConn pointing out our flaws even more," said Hartford head coach Jennifer Rizzotti.
The opportunity for flaws to be exposed concretely on the scoreboard rarely occurs for UConn outside of practice. The coaching staff sets the standards for the team outside the scoreboard, and expects the players to learn to not measure themselves against their opponents, but rather their own potential.
Hartford's Rizzotti was shaped by four years as a player at UConn where she was a national player of the year and won a national championship in 1995 as the point guard of Geno Auriemma's first undefeated team. In the post game press conference, Rizzotti shared that she told her Hartford team, "You wonder why I'm a crazy person. This is where I come from. These guys are up 35 and I'm sure (Auriemma) went in the locker room and had something to complain about. And that's where I come from. Whatever you do, we're going to want more. Yes, I want you to be perfect. Do I expect you to be perfect? No, but we're going to strive to be. What's the most perfect version of Hartford that we can be?"
"That's what I want my team to understand. I'm not asking them to be UConn or anybody else, but I'm coming from a place where striving for perfection is a regular everyday occurrence," concluded the coach who was recognized as an Academic All-American as well as a two time All-American during her playing career at UConn.
Auriemma has a book titled In Pursuit of Perfection and Moore is a star that truly represents that pursuit and is a perfectionist to a fault. Moore, like Rizzotti, has been recognized as an Academic All-American in addition to all of her basketball awards, and her first two seasons have been marked by unparalleled efficiency.
For her career, Moore has shot 61% inside the three-point line and made 41% of her three point attempts (and interestingly, given the added value of three point shots, Moore's effective shooting percentage from three point land is also 61%). That shooting efficiency combined with a very low turnover rate, impressive rebounding, and plenty of steals and blocks add up to a complete package. Auriemma has said Rizzotti had to change from hating to lose to wanting to win as a UConn player, and Auriemma's similar challenge for Moore is to get her to worry less about being perfect in order for her to eventually become a more perfect player.
"I'm trying to get Maya to take more risks, to make more chances,” said Auriemma on CPTV. “Maya (Moore) is a very calculating person. She figues things out first. Studies them and then tries to apply them. I'm trying to get her to be more instinctive.”
If that push to take more risks has shown up anywhere in games to this point, it has been in Moore coming away with more steals on defense and more aggressively putting the ball on the floor on offense. The player that used to get the ball and immediately guard to pass it to rather than risk a turnover has been pushing the ball up the court herself in transition. Her turnover rate is not as flawless as it was a season ago, but Moore has also seen some of the rewards for those risks.