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UConn's Blowout Of Duke: Why McCallie's Boxing Metaphor Is Perfect

I know very little about boxing.

And to some extent, I realize it's odd - and someone once even told me stupid - for a writer to explain one sport with another sport.

But in searching for explanations for what happened in UConn's 87-51 blowout of Duke last night, the boxing metaphor of how to roll with a punch and respond to it seems to work as well as any explanation I've seen anywhere.

Each reporter seemed to splice up Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie's boxing quote differently - and there are competing versions of this one - but it seemed to provide the best explanation for what happened.

UCONN WOMEN: Huskies dominate No. 3 Duke (video)- The New Haven Register - Serving New Haven, Connecticut
"Connecticut came out punching, and we completely stepped back," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We took the punches and didn’t do anything to counterpunch or anything to fight back early, and that’s the way it went.

Drawing on McCallie's comment, Duke didn't get knocked out - they got hit hard and were simply stunned. They weren't able to fight back. And streak or no streak, I would argue that when UConn is playing the way they did last night, there's almost nothing an opponent can do to stop them.

For some perspective, let's talk about UConn's second half - they shot 60% from the field, 4-8 from three, had a 74% offensive rebounding percentage and 11 assists on 15 made field goals. That, by the way, was the half in which Duke played better.

Key players: Tiffany Hayes and Kelly Farris made big contributions

And a large part of what went well - particularly in comparison to the early season Baylor game - is that UConn got a lot more from players like Farris and Hayes who combined for 12-for-22 shooting, including 4-for-6 three point shooting from Farris. That's not even to mention Stefanie Dolson's 12 rebounds (and dominant 40.56% defensive rebounding percentage).

UConn just played that well and Duke didn't respond. It's not the other way around where UConn played an average game and Duke played a terribly subpar game. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it's important in how we think about Duke going forward.

Key statistic: It's really hard to win games if you shoot 15% in the first half

McCallie also mentioned that she wasn't quite as concerned with the outcome of the game as the process of getting there and that's a great point because the lopsided score obscures a few things:

  • Duke's strength this season has been their turnover percentage differential: they force teams to turn the ball over on a higher percentage of possessions than they do. Entering last night's game, Duke's opponents turned the ball over 9% more often than they did. Last night, UConn turned the ball over 8% more often.
  • Duke recovered 36% of the offensive rebounds available to them in the game, which is less than their season average, but not exactly terrible.
  • UConn held Duke to a free throw rate of 20% by simply completely clogging the middle, which is a blow because Duke usually gets there at a rate of 35%.
  • Also notable is that much has been made of Duke's offensive struggles and their 42.11% assisted field goal rate is well below normal - they aren't a team that's going to win a whole lot of games without moving the ball offensively.

Those last two points are the key - although the first half numbers were considerably worse than the second half, even then Duke forced an advantageous turnover differential (3% better than UConn). What UConn did was not necessarily to take away Duke's biggest strengths, but they exploited a relative weakness: Duke is not among the elite teams in terms of shooting efficiency and they need outstanding ball movement just to be average.

UConn denied ball movement, forced Duke late into the shot clock, forced contested shots, and made Duke into a one-on-one team but didn't really allow them to get into the paint. Maya Moore described it perfectly in her post-game comments: they played near perfect defense.

Does Duke have some things to ponder offensively? Absolutely. But their struggles to create offense at times are not unique to last night's game - they were evident against NC State when Duke was down 20. Regardless of what you think about their style of play, they just found out that it definitely doesn't work against UConn.

So if UConn played near perfect defense in the first half, they exacerbated an existing weakness for Duke. Even in the second half when Duke posted 36 points and were above average statistically, UConn was in another dimension. 

If you want an explanation for this game, you have to start with UConn's performance and wonder to yourself how exactly any team would have beaten them when playing that well and if Duke in particular was poised to do the job as a team that struggles to score on occasion.

Duke statistical MVP: Krystal Thomas takes on an unusually large portion of the burden.

While looking at the team level says quite a bit about what UConn did to Duke, there's a story to be told at the individual level as well.

Krystal Thomas (67%), Chelsea Gray (50.9%) and Jasmine Thomas (35.23%) were responsible for almost all of the team's statistical production. If you notice that those numbers don't add up to 100%, it's because Karima Christmas accounted for 1.9% of their production (well below the norm) and six players posted negative numbers, meaning they hurt the team more than they helped (Allison Vernerey is the remaining player and accounted for 19% of the team's statistical production).

That would be a problem for any team, but is particularly significant for Duke who, despite popular perception, is normally a very balanced team statistically with nobody accounting for more than 17.3% of the team's total statistical production (Thomas). More importantly, as good as Duke is, the player who normally takes the most shots is one of their least efficient scorers with Christmas on 1% ahead of her. So with Christmas taking up significantly more scoring plays than normal as the team scrambled to find anything that would work, they were completely out of sorts.

As mentioned previously, UConn's defense forced Duke to do things offensively - sit in the halfcourt late into the clock - that Duke just wasn't capable of responding to in the way they'd like. Duke is a team whose success is predicated on ball movement and balance; UConn turned them into a one-on-one team relying heavily on three players.

Again, this wasn't so much a matter of a team that didn't come to play - this was a team that didn't know how to respond to an outstanding UConn performance.

Discomfit is a word that describes a particular process of not just routing an opponent but what I like to imagine as psychologically dismantling them.

It makes sense why it's not used more often in sports: it's somewhat awkward to even think about writing UConn discomfited Duke 87-51 last night (and when used in the past tense, the four syllables make it even more awkward). But the awkwardness of saying the word aloud sort of adds to its effect - not one letter of that four syllable word goes untouched as you pass over it. UConn was out to dismantle every aspect of Duke's game and though they didn't necessarily, they put them into a world of frustration that Duke had no way out of.

You can use your own choice words to describe last night's game and, to some extent, the semantics don't matter - as much as we may have come to expect UConn to blowout everyone they face, the beating Duke took in Storrs seemed to have a uniquely vicious character to it unlike the average beatdown.

There are obviously some people shocked that a #2-3 matchup could be so lopsided, but if you believed rankings had any predictive value to begin with, you're already lost. Then there's the depth storyline, but I'm just not sure how you could watch a Geno Auriemma team play more than once and worry about them getting tired in February. Not with basketball superstar Maya Moore still in uniform, who of course dropped 29 on Duke.

So it's illogical for people to watch how well UConn played and then turn to Duke and say, "What's wrong with you tonight? Buck up!"

If UConn is playing that well, there's not much anyone can do about it and the point differential becomes irrelevant at that level of performance. By most people's standards, that was arguably the best UConn has played all season on both ends of the ball. So will they come out and play that way every night? Probably not. And if that's the case, then perhaps it's worth considering that their performance was just an anomaly, even if they are getting better, and Duke was on the wrong end of a bad matchup.

It becomes really hard to knock Duke for that performance, especially given how they played in the second half.