It’s easy to see why Geno Auriemma is losing sleep.
After all he is in his native city of Philadelphia and is neither enjoying the cheesesteaks nor the trolley rides. He didn’t run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art trying to recreate a Rocky moment and he is never the underdog anyway.
But this region has him focused because there is little room for error.
"I went out early and stayed out late," Auriemma said of his previous trips to Philadelphia. "I knew we had the best team in the country. Whether I showed up or not, it didn't matter. Now all I do is stay in and watch film."
Good thing too. He needed every trick in his book to get past the Georgetown Hoyas 68-63. Perhaps he can get out for a little fresh air now as UConn defeated Georgetown for the third time this season but they needed every round to do so, leaving his Connecticut Huskies to face the Duke Blue Devils in the Elite 8. The Blue Devils defeated the Blue Demons 70-63 before 5,734 fans at the Liacouras Center at Temple University.
This game can best be broken into segments. There was the segment when UConn looked lost. The segment when they looked terrified. And the final segment when the seniors decided it wasn’t their time to go home.
Georgetown was confident coming into the game that could not only compete with the Huskies but also that they could defeat the basketball juggernaut. The Hoyas after all they had gone toe to toe with UConn two times earlier this season losing in decisions and not knock outs. They have defeated perennial power Tennessee. They have beat Georgia Tech and Maryland. They have shown they could play with the upper echelon of teams in the country. While self confident, the Hoyas said no one else had as much faith in them as they had in themselves. They played that old disrespect card.
"We continue to tell our young ladies that we have nothing to lose," Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said on Saturday. "Nobody is expecting us to win. Nobody is picking us to win. No one is picking us to beat UConn. So why not? We’re in the Sweet 16 and no one expected us to be here either."
Fast forward to 20 minutes into the first half on Sunday afternoon, they had everyone in the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia believing that the improbable could happen.
Georgetown was raining threes in from DC, they were trapping and pressing so much that UConn had no idea where it was going to come from next and any half-way decent open shot had UConn launching prayers from anywhere on the court.
Even when UConn made a run in the first half to take a lead the Hoyas were never far away answering run for run and led 35-32 at the half.
Then Connecticut started playing on their heels.
This is not the first time that UConn has retreated with an opponent that doesn’t exactly wilt at their mere presence throws a punch their way.
The scouting report on the Huskies is simple, if you're physical, if you pound it at them and make them work they will retreat and turn into a jump shooting team. It looks good if you shoot 50% from the field like they have this season. But as they struggled with the physicality of the Hoyas they stayed true to form: they took a whopping 14 3-pointers and countless jumpers in the first half and ultimately found themselves looking on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
At the half UConn had only amassed 12 of their 32 points in the paint and was trying to match Georgetown three for three.
Georgetown was unconscious from 3 for most of the game including the Hoya’s tallest starter junior forward Tia Magee. Magee used a multitude of screens to get herself open while being guarded by the laterally challenged Stefanie Dolson. They hit 50% of their 3’s in the first half and 10 total for the game.
"We were able to take advantage of her a little. She was somewhat lumbersome or cumbersome is it, " said Geogrtown senior guard Monica McNutt.
"He had to take Dolson out,’’ Williams-Flournoy said. "Tia Magee was absolutely killing her. He had to take her out. Tia Magee was taking her to the basket. She was shooting the 3. So he decided to go smaller with putting Dixon in the game. And Dixon was a kid, She hasn’t been a big-time player for them. She was their spark coming off the bench. She handled the ball, which took some of the pressure off of Bria Hartley. It took some of the pressure off of Tiffany Hayes. So now they were able to stand on the wings a little bit and get more open shots.’’
What Magee didn’t provide from the outside, McNutt certainly did. The senior leader didn’t want her career to end in the Sweet Sixteen.
Of course, the UConn Huskies had seniors of their own. Seniors that are used to winning.
It took until 13:17 remained in the game and UConn down 44-49 for coach Auriemma to insert Lorin Dixon when freshman Bria Hartley picked up her 3rd foul. He needed someone to relieve the pressure and settle his sputtering offense. The senior did just that.
She tipped balls. She hung close to future All-American Sugar Rodgers. She got the Huskies in transition and she hit a few shots when her team desperately needed some points. She was everything that the former High School All-American was recruited to be.
Dixon has not always had it easy. She has struggled on and off the court at UConn. She has had to learn what hard work and dedication meant. She has had to live in the shadows of one of the most storied women’s basketball players in the history of the game. She has done all of this with an infectious smile on her face.
So it was fitting that UConn’s chance for an Elite 8 game depended on Dixon.
The player who questioned her decision to come to UConn and live with the scrutiny and pressure for 3.5 years, Dixon's emergence when UConn sent Dolson to the bench moments later was the defining point in a game in which no team could take the momentum and run away and no team had led by more than 7 the entire game.
"Today was a great reflection of what she's been doing for the last month for every single day," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of Dixon, who finished with four points, four assists, four steals and 2 rebounds.
But they were 4 of the biggest points, 4 of the biggest assists, 4 of the biggest steals and 2 of the biggest rebounds in Lorin Dixon’s life.
Dixon allowed UConn to turn up the defensive pressure and her back to back steals allowed Connecticut to tie the game at 53 with 7:11 left in the game. Her jumper with 6:19 left gave UConn their first lead since 3 minutes into the 2nd half. It was about that time that you could see the Huskies collectively let out a sigh of relief and just play basketball. Maya Moore then did what she always does and hit big shots. With their Player of the Year making shots that gave Bria Hartley the confidence to hit 2 3 point shots and UConn was rolling to their 17th Elite 8 in their history.
"My players aren’t in these situations very often and it’s good to be tested," Auriemma said. "It’s easy to be a winner when you’re winning. You find out a lot about yourself when you have to go and win. We found out a lot about us today."
"I think we learned over the course of this game what it takes to lose a game like that and what it takes to win a game like that," Auriemma, went on to say. "We were fortunate that we made some huge plays the last seven or eight minutes and when it was time for our team to win the game, we stepped up. Georgetown didn't lose this game as much as we went out and won the game. I'm really proud of our guys for that."
Georgetown’s downfall was that they could not score when they had UConn down 7.
"We didn't hit shots," Williams-Flournoy said. "Sugar missed a layup, we turned the ball over twice. Against a team like Connecticut you can't make those kinds of mistakes. That's the only way you're going to give yourself any kind of cushion to beat Connecticut. They have Maya Moore, she hit those big shots."
Georgetown can hang their hat on the fact that they belong. They were ranked in the top 25 for the entire season. There are no moral victories in basketball - everything is a knockout or a decision.
"Our program is on the rise," McNutt said. "We're past moral victories we should be in the Elite Eight."
There is not much to say when you have to take the basketball shoes and jersey off for the last time but 9 of those Hoyas are going to remember the day they were in the ring in the Huskies and threw a punch so hard they made UConn take a step back and perhaps when they return next year they won’t blink.
"I’m never one to pat myself on the back, but I think I’ve done a very good job with this program," Williams-Flournoy said. "We will never be the underdog, ever again."
‘Coach, I agree I’m not sure you can ever say those words again. Well unless I see Maya Moore or Lorin Dixon lurking in the shadows.’