COLUMBUS, Ohio — NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams played 255 games before the University of Connecticut took the court Monday evening for the first time this season.
That isn’t nearly enough of a head start.
Three days after No. 7 Ohio State played second-ranked South Carolina down to the wire on the latter team’s citadel of a home court, it had no such luck on its own court against No 1 Connecticut. The final score was 100-56. It was over well before that. It usually is for the Huskies.
Sophomore Gabby Williams played a lot and played well for Connecticut. Freshmen Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson played for the first time. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes are no longer around. But with Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck, the plot looked familiar.
Stewart was outstanding by most any standard, if perhaps less so by her own, with 24 points, nine rebounds and four blocks despite a rare encounter with foul trouble. When it mattered early in the evening, Jefferson was the best player on a court she shared with Stewart and Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, with 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting and typically incessant defense.
Change the year, change a few of the faces, it doesn’t matter. What doesn’t change is the ruthlessness with which Connecticut plays against perfection as much as the opponent.
Consider Monday’s game, when Connecticut took an early 14-4 lead, only to see Ohio State run off nine points in a row with All-American Mitchell on the bench with two fouls. Slowly, one defensive stop at a time, Connecticut pushed the lead back to eight points. Then Stewart sat down for the first time, which left the Huskies with two freshmen and a sophomore alongside Jefferson and Tuck.
That would signal an opponent’s opportunity in most games. Not here.
Playing older than her years, just as she did a season ago, Kia Nurse drove to her left, ducked her shoulder and held the ball an extra beat to accentuate contact and draw a shooting foul.
Nurse missed the second of two free throws, but Collier and Tuck beat any Buckeyes to the rebound. On the resulting possession, Tuck hit a baseline shot to extend the lead back to double digits at 11 points. The margin wouldn’t be single digits again. A careless Ohio State turnover gave Jefferson an easy run out for a 13-point lead. Then Williams, a guard who brings an added dimension of athleticism, and Jefferson teamed up to force a turnover on the ensuing inbounds. Jefferson’s layup made it 33-18.
That added up to a 19-5 run since Ohio State was within a point. It wasn’t a beautiful run. It was a run ground out through relentless, cohesive defense.
And it wasn’t over.
“We’re not one of these teams that we get up a little bit, and we relax. I don’t have those kinds of players. We don’t practice like that. And I don’t coach like that.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma
By the time Nurse hit a 3-pointer to make it 49-20, Connecticut’s run stood at 35-7 over more than 10 minutes. Long enough that it wasn’t even a run. It was just the game.
“When we went into halftime, into the locker room, we had no idea we were up 30, or whatever we were up,” Stewart said of what was a 26-point advantage. “It didn’t seem like that. We’re not looking at the scoreboard. We’re just playing each play because that’s what we do in practice. We go up and down playing against our practice players. We don’t stop to say, ‘Oh, look, we’re up 20.’ But we definitely got a lot of big stops [in the first half] to really gain the lead.”
It is in those stretches that Connecticut separates itself, literally and figuratively, from all others.
Ohio State came out in the early minutes of its season opener at South Carolina, pushed the pace, as is its wont, and found a really good team willing and able to push back. A few too many mistakes against an opponent that punishes those and the Buckeyes trailed by 15 points, right about the same time they trailed by the similar margin Monday night against the Huskies.
Maybe South Carolina, with Tiffany Mitchell briefly off the court, unconsciously shifted from fifth to fourth gear. Maybe Ohio State just got some 3-pointers to fall. Maybe it was just one of those nights. But by halftime, Ohio State had the lead and South Carolina had to start over again. It did because it can, because it’s the second-best team in the country. It won by eight points.
Final Four-caliber teams do that. But Connecticut seemingly never needs to.
Look back at the most important games en route to yet another championship a season ago.
What was strange about the early loss at Stanford a season ago wasn’t just that Connecticut let a late lead slip away but that it never made the familiar run to separate itself in the first place. It never led by double digits in that game. In wins against Duke, Notre Dame and South Carolina in the regular season and Maryland in the Final Four, Connecticut led by double digits at some point during the first half (it took until the second half of the championship game rematch against the Fighting Irish). Only Duke ever regained the lead, and that only briefly. More than that, Duke was the only one of those teams to cut the deficit to even five points once down double digits.
Think about that. Once they fell behind by double digits against the inevitable run, the nation’s best teams never even got the game back to a single possession.
Just like Ohio State on Monday.
“I think it might have something to do with the intensity level that we bring, that generally doesn’t waver,” Auriemma said. “So we’re not a spurt team. We don’t spurt and then stop. And then try to pick up another spurt later and then stop. We play. And then when we have an opportunity to get one, it fuels us and we just keep going. We still back up a little bit. There were times when we did some stuff that we’re not proud of. But we’re not one of these teams that we get up a little bit, and we relax.
“I don’t have those kinds of players. We don’t practice like that. And I don’t coach like that.”
So when told after the game she hit 10-of-15 shots, Jefferson’s immediate response was to counter by asking how many turnovers she had. That it was four she deemed unacceptable. She also rattled off a list of errors, from box outs to defensive rotations, that offered room for improvement for a team that had just routed what remains a Final Four contender by 44 points.
And Ohio State is still a Final Four contender, its 0-2 start completely different than for a team like North Carolina, which has lost to Gardner-Webb and Oregon. The Buckeyes will be better this season and in seasons to come.
“We have to continue to raise the level of expectations within our program on a daily basis, which is where they’re so good and it leads to so much success for them,” McGuff said of UConn before the season opened. “We’ve made a lot of progress in that area, but we’re still not there yet.”
He also said that as much as he likes his current roster, a few more seasons of aggressive recruiting would be necessary to hope to close the gap. That’s part of it, too. Connecticut has a lot of talent. Not more than other elite teams to the degree people who pay attention once or twice a season often suggest, but a lot all the same. And with news of an incoming class in Columbus that includes a top-10 recruit, McGuff is making progress on that front, too.
What matters most is what is made of that talent.
And as a new season begins, the rest of the best still have ground to make up on Connecticut.
Just like when we left off in April.