Big test for Huskies

UConn's 76-game winning streak on the line in semifinal matchup with Bears, who feature 6-8 freshman center Griner

April 04, 2010|By John Altavilla | Tribune Newspapers

SAN ANTONIO — — It has never been Connecticut's style to bow its flag to opponents. It's not that the Huskies don't respect them. They do. It's more about their attitude about themselves.

And the bigger the parade, the tighter that insular focus becomes. So don't expect a different approach tonight when the Huskies play Baylor (27-9) in the national semifinals at the Alamodome.

"It doesn't matter what the score is," coach Geno Auriemma said. "My players are always under the impression that they are going to win. ... I've seen teams that accept losing, say it's not our day today, we'll get it tomorrow. Well, my guys refuse to accept that. They will not accept it."

UConn (37-0) will face the big challenge of Baylor's 6-8 freshman center Brittney Griner the way it has dealt with Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker, Courtney Paris and Jayne Appel over the years.

"We pick it up in March and April," Maya Moore said. "It's the best time of the year to play, and we just come with everything we have."

The Huskies have never encountered anything like this. Only Anne Donovan (6-9) played in a Final Four closer to the clouds.

Still, they won't compromise. They'll wait to see how Baylor and Griner plan to deal with them - and the 76-game winning streak that has turned the rest of women's basketball into a support group.

"If I were coaching Baylor, I'd tell them, 'Imagine what the headlines could read on Monday,' " ESPN's Carolyn Peck said. "Dare to dream. Anything can happen. ... That's why you want to be here. I think it would be historical. Baylor, Oklahoma and Stanford have a goal. That goal isn't to end [UConn's] streak. It's to win a national championship."

Baylor won a national championship in 2005 and its coach, Kim Mulkey, is the only one to have won a title as a player, assistant and coach. The first two were at Louisiana Tech. But the Bears have had to work to get here.

The Huskies have run through the first two rounds of the tournament with wild abandon, winning their first four games by a combined 188 points. Counting the Big East tournament, UConn has allowed an average of just 39.7 points, holding all opponents under 50 points and four under 40.

"It's something that I have a hard time explaining," Auriemma said. "There is nothing I could say that would make any sense. The cynic out there is saying, 'Well, everyone else must be pretty bad.' Well, I know that's not true."

But it's not on defense that the fun will be begin. It's when they venture to the basket, the place where Griner has her grip. She has already blocked 35 shots in the tournament, an NCAA-record 14 against Georgetown.

"It's a conundrum, because she can stand in the middle of a lane and block your shot outside the elbow," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "And I'm not exaggerating, there's no hyperbole there. It's really, really hard to get to the basket. So at the end of the day to beat Baylor, you're going to have to make some outside shots. And you're going to have to not turn the ball over and you're going to have to not be impacted emotionally and mentally once you block shots, because until you've been on the floor with it, it's a really, really hard thing to handle.

"And the first time we played against them, it took us by surprise. And, you know, you prepare for it. You watch film. You test out - if you're tall and you try to replicate it as best you can. And you just can't. And the more we were on the floor with it, the better I think we got at dealing with her defensive presence. But it's a different deal."

If UConn's task is huge, Baylor's is enormous. In All-Americans Tina Charles and Moore, the Bears will have to neutralize two game-breakers who are playing as well as they've ever played.

"You don't at this point of the season need to do a bunch of rah-rah stuff and say you can do it," Mulkey said. "It's David versus Goliath. These are grown women in a lot of respects in that they've played enough games to be beyond the motivational talks."

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