UConn will need more in Albany
STORRS – It was supposed to be a night of good cheer, UConn-style. A powerful step towards the Albany Regional and a hoped for 12th straight Final Four and another national title. A bonifide big-time sendoff for Nepheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson in their last game at Gampel Pavilion, two of the Huskies’ all-time greats.
Isn’t that how UConn always does it? Big-time in a big way, brushing away early round opponents like a street sweeper obliterates the winter sand. Letting their best shine one more time.
But we keep being reminded that this is a different UConn team, that all the pieces are not firmly in place. That this program which has reached perfection and strives for more is now a plenty good but clearly vulnerable.
And we keep being reminded that UConn can win the National Championship or not make the Final Four. Whatever happens don’t be surprised.
And so here it was in the fourth quarter. The Huskies in their own cozy and comfortable confines where they haven’t lost since Jan. 5, 2013 to Notre Dame, with a 24-point lead at one point were reeling.
Almost six minutes without a point, six missed shots, half a dozen turnovers, a seemingly safe 75-60 lead down to 75-67 with 2:13 to go. Nobody had an answer for a long time. An unknown uneasiness thought extinct at this time in this place rolled around Gampel with growing intensity.
Zip to the end of the story and UConn did regroup enough to hang on for an 82-70 victory. Collier, who was brilliant one last time at Gampel scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, scored from down low and that was the catalyst the Huskies needed. There were cheers but tinged as much with relief as with jubilation when all was in the books.
It was all enough to further the wariness as the Huskies move to the round of 16 Friday against UCLA with No. 1 seed Louisville also probably waiting in the wings with a trip to Tampa and the Final Four on the line Sunday.
The Huskies shot 18-of-30 from the foul line. They were outscored, 35-32, in the second half and 17-11 in the fourth quarter. A 24-point lead at home or anywhere else for that matter has usually ended up in a 50-point win, not a need-a-big play down the stretch scenario. Buffalo grabbed 25 offensive rebounds and haunted the Huskies under the basket.
The game was won early as UConn ripped off a 15-0 lead that became, 23-4, and at one point in the second quarter, 48-24. It was preserved late, nothing more.
Give Buffalo its do. In all the UConn mindset sometimes the opponent gets the short end of the deal. The Bulls refused to be the sacrificial early-round opponent. They weren’t demoralized by the start or the deficit.
Buffalo has a funky guard in Cierra Dillard who does a lot of shaking and baking while hitting fall-away three-pointers and finds a way to the basket. She tossed in 29 points and dished out seven assists. She twisted her ankle and looked too done for the evening in the fourth quarter and then returned to carry on the battle. She came for the fight and produced a good part of the drama.
“A lot of people come into UConn and a lot of teams get blown out,” said Dillard. “’hey can’t say they walked over us. UConn cannot say they walked over Buffalo. They can’t say we laid down. I think if we had five more minutes left we could have given them a run for the money. I feel like they were rattled. But UConn is also poised and after coach Auriemma called a time out, they settled down. “
UConn was effusive in its praise of the Bulls and their toughness. The Huskies knew a battler when they faced one.
“It’s March, teams aren’t just going to give up and roll over they’re going to fight to the last minutes to win the game,” said Samuelson. “For us to see that now is good for us to figure out what we have to do. We understand as a team that we can’t play the way we did. As long as we know that we can grind stuff out, we’re going to be more confident. “
There was acknowledgement that this wasn’t their finest hour but the Huskies saw a more practical side of what transpired. It’s the NCAA Tournament, it’s supposed to tough. We grinded it out. None of which can be argued.
But, these are games that used to be handled and when the Huskies had an opponent down, the foot was on the neck. These are different days, it comes harder as you knew it must and as Auriemma had been cautioning for years referring to UConn’s devastating dominance – “It isn’t going to last forever.”
No death knell here. The Huskies are 32-2 and at times are still have a game to behold. But this season is different. Whatever happens, don’t be surprised. They could cutting down nets or watching the nets be cut down.
There is no sure deal any more, Buffalo proved that. These are different days for the Huskies.