Geno Auriemma has occasionally griped: “we always get the nine o’clock (p.m.) game.” Not this time. UConn opened their quest for a fourth straight national championship Saturday at 11 a.m.
Ten minutes later, The score was 41-4. Five steals in the first six possessions all turned into points. Like so many #16 seeds, Robert Morris, the Northeast Conference champions, were not prepared to compete with a top seed – particularly when that seed was the best team in the country. Overwhelmed early and down 64-15 at the half, the Colonials showed spirit and energy despite the score. Against the Husky’s second team, they actually held their own reasonably well.
What we learned about Robert Morris: They shoot the three well. They were 9 of 20 (.450), though only three of those were against the UConn starters. But they still hit them. Not one of their starting five was born in the United States (Greece, France, Italy, Canada, Canada). They run their plays well: when not facing the best of the UConn defense, they found open space, and made a lot of their open shots. They closed the game shooting a respectable 38 percent from the floor. They obviously deserved to be here. Anna Niki Stamolamprou led Robert Morris with 11 points on 4-14 shooting.
Final score: 101-49. No UConn starter played more than 27 minutes, and that was Kia Nurse. Six Huskies scored 13 or more points, led by forward Katie Lou Samuelson’s Twenty-two. The freshman shot 7-10 from the floor, 3-4 from three, and 5-5 from the line. Her transition from tentative kid to potential super-star in the last month is great news for Connecticut, and terrible news for the opposition. With three blocks and eight steals to go with her 18 points, Breanna Stewart became the UConn blocks leader, passing Rebecca Lobo with 398. Stewart is a rare combination of confidence (extreme) and humility. About this new record, she said, “Rebecca Lobo blocked a lot of shots, and she did it in a lot fewer games, so she’s still the leader in that way.”
Stewart is already the only player in NCAA history to have 300 blocks and 300 assists. On Monday, with two more blocks (a likelihood) she will be the only player to have 400 blocks and 400 assists, an accomplishment so superior that is nearly beyond comprehension.
What we learned about UConn (we actually already knew most of this): Their starters are superb. No starting five has the skill, the defensive communication, the spacing or the scoring ability of this group. Samuelson’s emergence as a scoring force just makes them all that much harder to beat. This victory tied UConn’s second-best-in-history (to UConn) winning streak at 70.
Some other things we know about UConn, from NCAA’s national rankings:
1st in free-throw shooting: 80.3 percent (25-27 today)
1st in scoring offense : 88.0 ppg
1st in scoring margin : 40.1 points (Baylor is 2nd at 24.8)
1st in FG percentage: 52.6 (Maryland is second at 50 percent)
1st (T) in assist/turnover ratio: 1.81
1st in fewest fouls per game: 11.1
3rd in Turnover margin: 9.55
4th in steals per game: 12.5
4th in blocks: 211
5th in scoring defense: 47.9 ppg
15th in 3P percentage: 37.0
and of course, 1st in winning percentage: 100
They have a defense that is often impregnable, except . . .
The only area short of excellence in the Husky game is defending the three. In this one category, they are 142 out of 344 D-I teams. If a high-scoring team can get 3 for 2 against the Huskies, they might prevail if UConn has an off night scoring. Think Maryland, shooting .405 as a team (and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough at .544). Or Baylor, at .374. Or think Notre Dame, averaging six threes per game, and shooting .406 as a team. Marina Mabrey shoots .476 and Madison Cable .451. Four Notre Dame players shoot over 37 percent from beyond the arc. And the Irish have the spacing and skill and inside presence to get those shooters open.
BUT (and there’s always a “but” when talking about a possible UConn vulnerability) UConn shot .556 from three (10-18) on this day, spread among six players. If they do that, or anything close, nobody has the slightest chance of beating them.
“[The score] just reflects the number of shots that go in,” Auriemma said after their conference tournament win. “Most nights we get the exact same shots. The way we play defense, we are always going to have a chance to win, but how much we can win by depends on how many shots go in. It starts on the defensive end and carries over to the offensive end.”
The way the shots were going in today, the road to an 11th National Championship is looking pretty navigable.
#9 Duquesne 97 #8 Seton Hall 76
I love 8 v. 9 games. They tend to be competitive, and with UConn as my local team, I don’t see a lot of that. These two at-large teams came out on fire offensively. In the first quarter, Seton Hall shot 50 percent, Duquesne 60 percent. The score after ten minutes: 32-24 Duquesne.
Things came back to earth in the second quarter, and the shooting dropped dramatically, 13-10 Seton Hall, to close the half at Duquesne 43-Seton Hall 37. For nearly three minutes, the score was stuck at 39-30.
What did we see? Both teams have height. Duquesne starters Amadea Szamosi and Kadri-Ann Lass are both 6-3, while Seton Hall’s Tiffany Jones is 6-3 and Libirdia Gordon is 6-4. The post players were not the leaders, however. Seton Hall was led by graduate guard Tabatha Richardson-Smith (formerly of both Florida State and Rutgers) with 17 points.
Seton Hall trailed for the entire game, and kept things close during the third period, closing to within four points on a pair of threes, before giving up a series of transition buckets to fall behind by ten. Following a 15-0 run, Duquesne controlled the game, with more organized half-court sets and contributions from many players. Seton Hall scored mostly in transition, and while four players scored in double figures, their high volume shooters, Richardson-Smith and Aleesha Powell were just 12-36 on the day.
Looking toward Monday’s second round:
Duquesne could provide some competition for UConn on Monday (7pm ESPN-2). Freshman Lass is a versatile player with three-point range, decent moves under the basket. Recruited as a guard, she mirrors to some extent the skillset and height of Stewart and Samuelson, but with a more muscular frame.
Duquesne is an interesting team, with an innovative coach, Dan Burt, now in his third year. Under Burt, Duquesne has had 20, 24, and now 28 wins under a system the coach calls “a little different. We have an offensive and a defensive coordinator, and I let . . . [them] run their own plays. I’m a macro coach, and we can see that’s become a very successful model.”
His team also plays hard, and capably runs their plays. Against Seton Hall, four starters scored 15 or more points, led by 25 from Deva’Nyar Workman and 20 from Lass. The Dukes shot 43 percent from beyond the arc (9-21), and outrebounded Seton Hall 43-37. The team played hard for forty full minutes, a rarity in today’s game.
“We’ve embraced what we are & what I’ve wanted from our team culture,” Burt explained. “I don’t think they’ve been satisfied the entire season. We’ve had a lot of firsts this season, and we’ve had a lot of leadership from our juniors and seniors. When you have nine players who have never put on a jersey, and seven of them are freshmen, you need that kind of leadership, . .. . and our young players have bought in, and have been very coachable.”
The culture has led to the success of a first NCAA tournament victory, and the prize of playing Connecticut next. “We completely embrace the challenge,” Burt said confidently. “We’re excited They are the most dominant best team in the world in their league. That’s just a fact. . . . We’re going to play free [Monday night]. We’re going to have fun. We’re going to see where we stand. . . . Lass is the best player in Estonia. [Amadea] Szamosi is the best player in Hungary in her age. We have kids who are the best in their countries, and they are now measuring themselves against the best in the world. This is the mecca of basketball.”
Duquesne may make a game of it, but they don’t yet measure up to a victory. The future for Coach Burt’s team looks bright, however, and they will be a mid-major worth watching in the future. UConn should move on to play in the “local” Bridgeport Regional.