By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies have always been known for their offense. Lately, it’s been their defense that has them beaming with pride.
UConn is giving up a meager 44 points a game and the Huskies are on pace to shatter their own NCAA record set two seasons ago.
“The effort (has been) unbelievable,” Auriemma said. “We kind of pride ourselves on that. We think we’re the best defensive team in the country. Kids buy into that.”
Defense has been one of the cornerstones to UConn’s run over the last decade en route to five national championships. Since 2002-03, the Huskies have given up a stingy 51.6 points a game– almost 11/2 points better than LSU, the next closest team according to STATS LLC.
“I don’t know that you can have anywhere near the kind of success that we’ve had without being able to play the kind of defense that we’ve played,” he said. “And we probably don’t get the credit that some other people might get because we don’t talk about it. We don’t have any special defenses and special presses and we don’t have fancy names for what we do defensively.”
What UConn does is shut teams down by playing hard-nosed, intense defense. The third-ranked Huskies have done an incredible job of taking away an opponent’s best player.
“Those are the types of things that we focus on, we go over in film and scouting and the more and more we see it, they expect us to be able to stop it every single time,” said Kelly Faris, who usually is given the assignment of guarding the other team’s top player.
Faris helped hold Georgetown guard Sugar Rodgers to just 10 points in Saturday’s 80-38 rout of the Hoyas. Rodgers came into the game averaging nearly 20 points.
“They do a great job of switching,” said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, whose team was held to 34 points by the Huskies.
“They play out in passing lanes. They pressure the ball. They play personnel as well as anybody I’ve seen.”
It almost seems as if the Huskies have an extra defender on the floor.
“It looks like we’ve got six guys out there every time we’re on defense,” said freshman guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
“We try to make sure that if someone messes up we’re there to cover that mistake up. We’ve got some guard who are able to guard post players. Kelly (Faris), she can guard the best player on the other team. I think it’s just our mindset and how much pride we take in our defense that really makes us good.”
The Huskies have only allowed four teams to score more than 60 points this season, and two of those resulted in losses– No. 1 Baylor and second-ranked Notre Dame. UConn will get at least one more shot at the Irish on Feb. 27 when the two teams meet in Hartford.
“I think defense for us every year there’s always an emphasis on it,” sophomore center Stefanie Dolson said. “And we had a couple games where coach wasn’t pleased with our defense. So I think we’ve definitely been stepping up our defense just to prove to him and everyone else that our defense is the best in the country.”
In their last four games UConn has really turned up its defensive intensity, locking down four Top 25 teams. Fifth-ranked Duke, No. 17 Rutgers, No. 20 Louisville and No. 14 Georgetown averaged only 41 points in the losses.
The Huskies held all four teams to long stretches without a field goal. Not a huge surprise since UConn is the stingiest team in the nation for field goal defense. The Huskies are holding teams to just under 30 percent shooting from the field this season. Only three times in the past 10 years has any team shot better than 50 percent against them. Notre Dame and Boston College did it in 2003-04 and then it didn’t happen again until last season’s national semifinals when the Irish did it again.
After playing at Oklahoma on Monday, the Huskies head home to face St. John’s on Saturday. Red Storm coach Kim Barnes-Arico has been impressed by UConn’s defense all season.
“We will be spending a lot of time this week on their defense,” she said. “They are so physical and take you out of your comfort zone. They don’t allow you to do what you want to do. They are so good at rebounding and their defense creates a lot of their offense.”
Clearly Auriemma knows that having so many talented players out of high school helps get the Huskies in a defensive mindset.
“One of the nice things about my situation is that I have the ability to recruit seven kids who are high school All-Americans,” he said. “When they get here they look around and I tell them guys that don’t want to play defense won’t play. They know, there’s always someone else. They know if they want to play they’ll have to do those other things. Other schools may only have one All-American and they know they’ll still play 30 minutes if they don’t play
Still don’t look for Auriemma and his staff to be recruiting pure defenders any time soon.
“I don’t think I’ll ever go out to watch an AAU game or high school game and go let’s see who the best defender on the floor is,” he said. “You can’t score, you aren’t coming to Connecticut.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)