NOBODY SAID IT WOULD BE EASY
Nobody ever said it would be easy. There are a number of reasons why it shouldn’t be, particularly if you’re the UCONN women’s basketball team.
There is no team in the nation that has a bigger target on it’s back and gets more exposure. Every UCONN game is televised. There’s more video of the Huskies floating around than any other women’s basketball team. All of their games are either televised nationally, by ESPN, or on a broad regional basis, by Sportshannel New York, which not only provides plenty of video for other teams to scout, but it all comes with expert commentary from someone who’s sole job is to analyze games and dissect tape. There will never be an excuse to show up unprepared for the Huskies, particularly at this time of year, when the number of potential future opponents has dwindled to an elite few.
The NCAA tournament format comes with a built in advantage for underdogs, the reason most coaches claim surviving the regional rounds makes the final four look like a cakewalk. The cupcakes were disposed of in the first two rounds, every team still dancing when they arrive at the regional sites has a legitimate reason to be there. They may not exactly be the best 16 teams in the nation, or ranked in any particular order of 16, but it’s safe to assess them as 16 of the best 25. Talent margins have dwindled considerably.
In the regional semi finals underdog teams have had five or six full days to focus on the next opponent, the longest such stretch they enjoy all season. With a team like UCONN, who’s tendancies, talent and strengths are known nationwide, those five or six days are a lot of gravy to pour on the preparations. In the regional semi final in Lincoln, Nebraska BYU showed what that much coaching can do for an underdog team. They knew what they had to do to stay with the Huskies, it’s doing it for 40 minutes that becomes problematic when you’re overmatched. UCONN patiently made an adjustment or two and, and, in the end, talent and experience won out, with a 19 point margin. But it was the kind of game that gives the next team up, with a step up in talent level, an idea or two to work with.
The best players in the nation can have an off night and the next team up is always going to present a new challenge at a higher talent level, armed with the tape provided by the previous underdog. The combined result will frequently look like the first 25 minutes of last night’s Lincoln region final in which, in the early going, Texas A & M put the Huskies in the biggest hole they’ve faced this season.
The player the Huskies most rely on, as was confirmed by senior Stefanie Dolson after the win over BYU, sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, had an off night. The stars were all aligned for the Aggies, who managed to cut an 11 point halftime deficit to three early in the second half. UCONN’s pedigree won out, in the form of a 10-0 run that earned them control the rest of the way.
Every challenger has a knock out punch. Real champions are determined by how they guard against it or respond to it. So far no one’s been able to put the Huskies on the mat, or even stagger them, but it’s not going to get any easier now. Nobody ever said it would. If it were easy, that national championship trophy wouldn’t be worth bringing home for a parade, along about the middle weekend of the month, in downtown Hartford.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.