The other day after watching Ohio State's 76-74 come from behind victory over Purdue, I made the comment that sometimes you just have to win ugly.
There were no last second 3 pointers for the win nor 2nd half heroics, like Stanford had to secure a 67-53 victory over UCLA, but UConn, like Ohio State and Stanford, found a way to win without playing it’s best ball in claiming an 80-59 victory over Seton Hall in front of 11,249 at the XL Center.
Sometimes in life you’re a victim of your own success. Connecticut has a habit of making opponents look pedestrian at times. The bigger the game, usually the bigger the kill. Beating ranked opponents by 19.9 points per game and 29 points per game since UConn’s loss to Stanford. So fast forward to Tuesday's game against bottom feeder Seton Hall (8-19, 1-13 in Big East): UConn was supposed to have a cakewalk through this game. Someone just forgot to inform Seton Hall.
"I don't remember the last time someone made 10 [sic/11] 3's on us, so credit to them for making some tough shots," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Except for a 7-10 minute stretch at the beginning of the second half where it began to look like the Connecticut team that we are used to seeing, the other 25-30 minutes it was more about Seton Hall than it was about Connecticut. I think it also illustrates that when you make shots like we did in the second half, we made free throws, it covers up a lot of things. This was one of those nights where we didn't turn the ball over, we shot great from the free throw line, we played well for a stretch of minutes in the second half but it wasn't one of those games where you feel like you got everything accomplished that you wanted to get accomplished. Again, I think that's a function of what Seton Hall was doing. They didn't come in here and say `We're 1-12 and you're No. 1 in the country so let's get down 45-10 at halftime and embarrass ourselves.' They didn't do any of that."
Seton Hall was never intimidated, never buckled and never folded unlike some of the other opponents that have walked into the XL Center. Yes, they lost by 21. Yes, they only had 12 paint points. Yes, they sent UConn to the foul line 24 times. But they showed heart, desire and pride for all 40 minutes unlike Florida State, Duke and Oklahoma have this season when they got down to the Huskies.
"Our goal is a different measuring stick than Geno has for his team," Seton Hall coach Anne Donovan said. "Our goal is how competitive can we stay and we haven't done that very often. We got down recently at Notre Dame and we lost by fifty because we got down and we just put our heads down and didn't respond. Coming in we just wanted to stay competitive no matter what the score said and that we accomplished."
While the Pirates came out fired up, UConn players believed they came out flat and uninspired.
"This wasn’t the level of focus that we want to start a game with," senior Maya Moore said. "It’s too late in the season for us not to all come out with the same focus and intensity. It’s definitely something that shows we need to continue to work and get better, even though the postseason is right around the corner. There’s still work to be done."
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that these are kids and not machines. You look on paper at rosters, cumulative stats, comparative scores and think you have an idea as to what should be expected in a game. Then a curve ball is thrown and UConn is only up 11 at the half, on a team that only has 1 victory in the New Year and Seton Hall who averages 4.6, 3’s per game makes 11. It invokes some head scratching but that’s why the games are played.
"These games are natural," Coach Geno Auriemma said. "It’s a natural occurrence, especially when you come off Saturday [UConn over ND 78-57], when you play a game that, one day you’re playing a game that’s for first place in the league and the next day you are playing a team that’s tied for last in the league. That’s when a thin bench shows itself. If you’re playing 8 or 9 players, you can run more people out there and not have to tax people mentally as much. So after the game I wasn’t really upset with it."
That sort of thing is natural except if your name is Connecticut. Coach Auriemma has made the point repeatedly that the media and fans live in the extremes. That when they win, especially big, that everyone feels that they are around the corner for another championship. When they struggle their season is in the tank. He tries to keep his team in the middle. They’re not as bad as they seem sometimes and they are not as good as they think sometimes either.
"We're certainly capable of playing great and we're certainly capable of playing not so great," said Auriemma. "The thing we always pride ourselves in doing is playing so well defensively that those nights where you're not going to score a lot of points and you're not getting a lot of shots to drop, that you give yourself a chance to win... Very, very rarely can you guys think about a time when our defense really let us down and wasn't there. That hardly ever happens. As long as that continues to happen on that end, we can overcome whatever is happening on the other end. We shot 39% in the first half, which is ugly, but we still managed to score 38 points. I just think the defense is the big thing. The fact that we can find one or two people every night, whoever they may be, that can get something going."
The key for UConn in recent games has been the 1 or 2 people that Auriemma is referring to has been the ‘and others’. On Saturday, against Notre Dame, Player of the Year candidate Maya Moore did not score until 5:29 was left in the half. Against Seton Hall it took until 8:32 remained in the first half. Rather than play the stand around and watch game like they did earlier in the season, they went to work. Instead it was Stefanie Dolson going to work in the post, Bria Hartley hitting open 3’s and Tiffany Hayes driving to the basket. Kelly Faris just continues to be the rock that if you need a rebound she will get it or make the pass that no one else seems to make. But when all else fails and shots are not falling they go back to what they know. Stopping the ball and out-toughing their opponents.
UConn hasn’t had many games like tonight, where nothing was really wrong, but things were not quite right either. It was just a puzzling array of sitting afterward trying to decipher what you just witnessed.
You know that Maya Moore scored 20 points, but you wonder how she got there. You saw that UConn only had 5 turnovers and you remember more. UConn shot 42.9% for the game and had 22 assists on 27 field goals while giving up a Seton Hall season high 16 assists on 23 field goals. But the game was never in doubt.
There is only one explanation.
"It's the players. Since I've been here, the will to win of my teammates has always been amazing," said Moore. "If you have a group of people that no matter what it comes down to, they find a way to win, then you will. I've been fortunate enough to have those types of people around me. Just having confidence in your preparation - It's something that you almost take for granted how hard it is to have that will to win every night. Sometimes your shots aren't falling, you are out of sync, but you have to find a way to get stops and execute on the offensive end. As long as we keep practicing that mind set, first of all in practice, then bringing it to every opponent that we play, I'm confident that it will stay."
Auriemma had a slightly different take.
"On signing day we signed more All-Americans than they did. That’s why we won. That’s basically the theme of tonight’s game."
He added, "We played, we won and it’s time to move on… So on to the next one."