The Huskies killed themselves with turnovers. Again. They killed themselves by failing to box out. Again. And they killed any chance of sharing the Big East regular season championship by failing to fight back in the face of adversity with the outcome hanging in the balance.
Notre Dame went right at UConn in the second half Monday. In the past, the Huskies would have answered by making the necessary plays or by getting a series of defensive stops to fuel a decisive run or having one player step forward to lead the team to a big win in a big game.
But what we have learned about this season is the past is just that … the past. Instead of battling back against the Irish, the Huskies quit. And afterward UConn coach Geno Auriemma did not hold back. He spoke his mind. He spoke the truth. This team does not have any fight.
“No, they do not,’’ Auriemma said. “If they had it, it would’ve come out. We do not. When Maya (Moore) left, she took all the fight with her and we’ve been trying to find where is it? And if anybody comes from like Mars and lands in this room like in the next five minutes and goes `Man, that coach must be in deep do-do with his bosses. They must be 4-27.’ But we’re (26) and 4, but our team has no fight. I’ll tell you a lot of good things our team does, but that’s not one of them. You know what kind of fighters we are? We’re the kind of fighters that throw punches and if you keep backing up we’ll keep punching. But if you punch us back, we’re going to run and hide. I don’t think you win any world championships doing that.’’
The Huskies rallied to take a 51-49 lead on a three-point play by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with 13:06 left. But Notre Dame answered by scoring the next nine points in a 13-2 run. All-American Skylar Diggins generated eight straight points at one point before Brittany Mallory capped the run with a 3-pointer.
UConn committed five turnovers in six possessions in a span of 2:53.
Mosqueda-Lewis would then score five straight points to bring the Huskies to within 62-58 with 8:29 left. That was when the Irish leveled UConn with a finishing 10-1 run. And that was when the Huskies gave up.
Notre Dame drove home the dagger when Mallory hit a 3-pointer with 4:55 left and Natalie Novosel followed with another with 3:14 left.
Three seconds later, Auriemma called a timeout. At that point he had seen enough. He sent reserves Brianna Banks, Heather Buck, Lauren Engeln Michala Johnson and Kiah Stokes into the game. Mosqueda-Lewis, Bria Hartley, Tiffany Hayes, Stefanie Dolson and Kelly Faris were left to sit on bench and watch UConn’s run of five straight Big East championships go up in smoke.
Was Auriemma trying to send yet another message by sitting his key players?
“If you only knew,’’ Auriemma said. “If you only knew. If you only knew how many times we’ve come out of a timeout and we do absolutely nothing that looks like anything that you could possibly imagine we need to be doing. And then when you ask them, three guys had no idea what you were talking about in the huddle. So at that point, it’s like it’s pointless. It’s pointless. It’s pointless.
“We play a lot of games during the year, and I’ve coached a lot of games. But when you’re coaching a game where there’s a semblance of a championship – not that it would have mattered. We lost the Big East championship when we lost to St. John’s (Feb. 18). So for all intents and purposes I could care less about that. You don’t come to Connecticut to tie Notre Dame for the Big East championship. We don’t hold parades for ties around here. So we lost the Big East championship against St. John’s. So that was over and done with. (Monday night) was more about, we need to start setting a pattern or we need to start finding out like what are we going to do going forward. Who can we count on going forward? How many punches are we going to take before we throw a couple ourselves? Yeah, I wanted to see that in our team. I wanted to see that. I saw glimpses of it at times, but they just manhandled us on the backboard (42-31 overall; season-high 19-9 at the offensive end).’’
Rather than mounting a comeback the Huskies finished the game by missing their final 10 shots and committing four turnovers.
“We’ve just got to not allow ourselves to get pushed back,’’ Hayes said. “We’ve got to fight back as soon as we start to get down. And we can’t just talk about it. We’ve got to do it. It’s been happening to us a lot this year. So I think we just need to dig deep down inside ourselves and learn how to fight back when somebody gets us on our heels.’’
Hayes was then asked if at this point in the season they are questioning whether or not they have any fight in them …
“I know we have it,’’ Hayes said. “I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it in practice. I’ve seen it in games. We’ve just got to learn how to dig down and get it whenever we need to use it.’’
The Huskies will now have a five-day break before meeting either Rutgers, Cincinnati or Marquette in the Big East tournament quarterfinals Sunday night at the XL Center at about 8:30.
Last night Auriemma said he could care less about what happens in the tournament because UConn probably is not good enough to win it.
“We have to play really smart,’’ Auriemma said. “We have to play really hard, and we have to play really unselfish. And we have to overcome whatever lack of talent we have relative to a team like Notre Dame. Talent, experience, whatever you want to call it. And the fact that we have guys on our team that just won’t listen to anybody. Anybody. Not just me. They don’t listen to the assistant coaches. They don’t listen to their teammates. We just have some guys on the team that will not listen to anybody. They won’t. There’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s my job, so I guess I’m doing a lousy job of coaching this year.’’
The Huskies have committed a combined 86 turnovers in five games this season against Top 5 opponents (17.2), including 45 in two losses to Notre Dame. These opponents have scored 91 points off of turnovers (18.2), including a combined 33 by the Irish.
Notre Dame scored 23 points off of 18 turnovers Monday.
“I went into this season saying that if we don’t turn the ball over we could be a really good team,’’ Auriemma said. “And you guys asked me, `Are you going to win a national championship?’ And I said, No.’ We’re not good enough to win a national championship unless other people help us. Why? We don’t have any All-Americans on our team. And you know what? If you don’t have an All-American … if you don’t have great go-to players, in games like this that’s when it shows up. It doesn’t show up against any other team. But it’ll show up in games like this. And unfortunately, for us, we’ve had years when you didn’t have to play the perfect game and you could still win. Well, this year, we have to play perfectly to beat Baylor or Notre Dame twice or whoever the case may be. You have to play a near perfect game or we don’t have enough. We don’t have enough. And that’s not either here or there. It just is what it is. I don’t think anybody’s going to be crying for us or feeling sorry for us. I don’t think anybody is going to send me cards and letters saying `I feel bad for you, or your team.’ Tina Charles was here. She was in the stands. So I like to think that when you have a player like that you can win these games. When you don’t, it’s hard. It’s hard.’’