Sunday’s showcase game between the Connecticut Huskies and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets was noteworthy for several reasons.
Connecticut extended its win streak to 81 games with a 71-51 road victory, tying the longest winning streak at the college level for women’s basketball. The 7,325 in attendance at Alexander Memorial Coliseum was the record for a stand-alone women’s game. Connecticut senior forward Maya Moore, arguably the best player for her age in women’s basketball, got to come back home to Georgia.
The only ones leaving disappointed were Georgia Tech fans.
"The way that people down here feel about Maya, really all over the country, everywhere we go, she’s just made such an impact on the game and on the fans," Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. "Everybody’s just drawn to her, the way she plays and the way she carries herself, and she made some spectacular plays today."
It would be a great homecoming for Moore, who scored 30 points on the Georgia Tech home court. The last time she had played at Alexander she was a high school student, and it seems that the entire student body of her old school came out to see her. Applause for Connecticut – and Moore – challenged the applause for the Yellow Jackets. There were an awful lot of school sweaters and homemade signs, but unfortunately many of them were for the visiting team.
The only person who might not have noticed was the target of the attention herself.
"When you’re playing, it’s really crazy," Moore said. "I always wondered how this happens but you just block everything out a lot of the times. Sometimes it’s hard if it’s overwhelmingly loud, but I was just really focused. I tried not to really look around too much – I mean, I knew there were a lot of people there but I just like to stay focused on what we’re doing. "
For the first part of the first half, Georgia Tech looked good – the Huskies simply couldn’t figure out how to push the ball inside. This only left Connecticut with perimeter scoring, and the Huskies went 3-for-13 from outside in the first half of the game alone.
As long as junior center Sasha Goodlett could close the doors to easy shots, Georgia Tech had a chance. Senior guard/forward Alex Montgomery – who is still looking for that big game that will get the country’s notice – was willing to fight for rebounds.
Freshman guard Tyaunna Marshall took a few minutes to get warmed up, but quickly showed the crowd that the Huskies didn’t intimate her. She reminded me of Iziane Castro Marques, the kind of player who would shoot against anyone on a dare, and finished the first half with nine points.
Tech, however, faced problems in its inside game. Connecticut had freshman center Stefanie Dolson to put a body on Goodlett and work her over, acting like a snowplow in the paint. (If the Huskies knew how to work over Baylor center Brittney Griner, they could work over Georgia Tech’s less mobile posts.) The Huskies found the keys to the lane and began to work their way to the basket, going on a 14-0 run. Georgia Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph took Goodlett out of the game for a spell, but Montgomery would have three fouls by 3:28 left in the half, limiting the Yellow Jackets scoring opportunities.
Even with Goodlett back in, it seemed that the Huskies had the express lane to the basket, with each player working around, in back of, or through whatever player was serving as an obstacle. The Yellow Jackets were finding out what other teams had painfully learned: that Connecticut could beat you offensively or defensively.
Joseph has preached "defense is offense" – that Georgia Tech can turn defensive wins into offensive gains. That bolt was shot quickly – the Huskies only turned the ball over eight times in the first half. Meanwhile the Huskies defense held the Yellow Jackets to 35 percent shooting for the game and forced 16 first-half turnovers. Outside of Montgomery and Marshall, Tech had no real scoring options without Goodlett who was 2-for-10 in the game with seven turnovers.
Free throws? Still a problem for Georgia Tech. 7-for-13 in the first half. 5-for-9 in the second half. It’s something to worry about if you’re a Tech fan.
Tech’s second half was a lot better than its first: with four Connecticut freshmen on the floor, Montgomery scored seven of the first nine points for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech looked tougher in the interior and junior forward Chelsea Regins was putting a body on Dolson whenever Tech was on the offense. At one point, Georgia Tech got it down to 49-38.
Unfortunately for Georgia Tech, Connecticut had the best player in the country on its team, who decided to see if she could score 30 points – which she did, scoring 16 in the first and 14 in the second. The latter part of the first half was Moore driving to the basket and Tyaunna Marshall trying to make up for in on the other end – the Tech freshman would finish with 23 points, but it wasn’t enough.
MaChelle Joseph all but called out Alex Montgomery for a full minute during the Georgia Tech press conference for the 13 points she scored.
"Alex Montgomery’s got to take 20 shots a game," said Joseph. "She’s got to put us on her back, she’s got to make plays. I mean, Maya Moore had eight rebounds; she had eight rebounds. Maya Moore had 17 more points on 13 more shots. She’s got to take shots for us and that’s the bottom line. She can’t be feeding off of Ty; Ty has to feed off of her. Ty’s a freshman who’s showed a lot of poise and confidence and stepped up and made plays. Alex is a tremendous player. She’s one of the top five players in the ACC. It’s time for her to step up and take shots and show everybody else, including herself, that she’s one of the top five players in the ACC."
Did word get back to Montgomery? Montgomery was sitting next to Joseph when Joseph leveled her challenge. Clearly, there’s no miscommunication.
Up next for the Yellow Jackets is a tournament in the Virgin Islands starting November 25th with the Yellow Jackets playing Georgetown the first night and Tennessee the following night. Joseph feels that if Georgia Tech takes the right lessons away from this loss, it will make them a much better team.
"There’s not going to be a better player than Maya Moore in the Virgin Islands," said Joseph. "So you know what? We’ve already faced the very best. They’ve exploited our weaknesses. Now we have to address them. And that’s how you get better. You don’t get better when people don’t show you your weaknesses. They’ve showed us our weaknesses. So now we’ve got to go back and we’ve got to address them. And honestly, this game is going to help us beat somebody that we’re not supposed to."
* Georgia Tech out-rebounded Connecticut 40 to 38. Geno Auriemma thought it was the first time the Huskies had been out-rebounded in a game in two years. MaChelle Joseph called it a major accomplishment.
* This might have been the best-attended press game I’ve ever seen, with Mel Greenberg, Wendy Parker, and John Altavilla all in attendance.
Greenberg joked that instead of the school asking the press which players they wanted to interview after the game, the players should be asked which members of the press they wanted to be interviewed by.
* LaChina Robinson, Bob Rathburn, and head coach Marynell Meadors of the Atlanta Dream were also there. Kathy Betty, owner of the Atlanta Dream as well as a major Georgia Tech booster gave a brief speech at halftime. Manager Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves was also there, making me wonder if Maya Moore has a good curveball.
* I was amazed to see Geno Auriemma chewing gum in the huddle with his players. He was definitely chewing something, because his mouth was moving but no words were coming out – that might be a first.
* I can understand why no one is neutral about Geno Auriemma – he says what he thinks, which can be either charming or obnoxious. Regarding the streak, Auriemma said "The only way I know how to handle [the streak] is typical Italian – "If you don’t talk about, it doesn’t exist." That’s what my father always thought."
As for the streak coming to an end – or Auriemma looking back on it with fondness – "When it’s over, I’ll have a lot to say about it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say when it’s over. I’m going to address a lot of things when it’s over. So whoever doesn’t like me now is really not going to like me when this thing ends."
* Joseph’s comments about the Huskies pre-game warm-ups. "One of the things I was impressed with from the minute they started warming up is how they go about their warm-up. It’s very businesslike, and they go as hard in warm-ups as they do in a game. And I try to tell my players that every day -- how you practice is how you play."