The players are some of the best that have ever played the game of women’s basketball. Maya Moore. Tina Charles. Renee Montgomery. Diana Taurasi. Sue Bird. Jennifer Rizzotti. Kara Wolters. And Rebecca Lobo.
The UConn women’s basketball team has rolled into the Final Four at one point or another with one or more of these players on their roster. The Huskies were the favorites to win the national championship. These players provided Coach Geno Auriemma and his staff with a sense of comfort.
UConn arrived at the Pepsi Center Saturday with a different look. In a rare instance, the Huskies do not feature the best player. However, judging by the path they have taken to reach Sunday night’s national semifinal against Notre Dame (6:30; ESPN), their situation is hardly considered to be a significant detriment.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way than the way we did it with this team this year,’’ UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph said. “To be honest, watching them be so successful with so much doubt and uncertainty surrounding them and them hearing all year, `You don’t have a star player. You don’t have a star player.’ It’s been so gratifying to watch them get to this point with how hard they’ve worked and how excited they are for each other. It’s been really rewarding.’’
It is arguably only the fifth time in 13 Final Four appearances that UConn (33-4) does not enter the event featuring the top player in the field. The other seasons when the Huskies did not boast the single truly elite player were 1991 (Dawn Staley, Virginia), 2000 (Tamika Catchings, Tennessee), 2001 (Ruth Riley, Notre Dame), 2008 (Candace Parker, Tennessee) and this season with Baylor 6-foot-8 junior National Player of the Year Brittney Griner.
A case could be made that UConn does not have one of the top three players this weekend with Griner, Stanford All-American Nneka Ogwumike and Notre Dame All-American Skylar Diggins. Incidentally, UConn has gone on to win the national championship only once when it has not had the best player (2000).
Ralph, who was an All-American for the Huskies in 2000, says the fact that UConn does not have the best player does not stunt its collective level of confidence regarding whether or not it can win two games here.
“I don’t think we have any doubt we can,’’ Ralph said. “I don’t think that is a prerequisite for being able to win. Obviously, it helps but I think we found our niche in the team effort. We are very comfortable and our players have had great success over the past month just getting to that point.’’
The Huskies have compensated for their lack of star power this season with an all-for-one approach. And never has that been more evident than in the NCAA tournament.
Bria Hartley (16.8), Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (16.5), Tiffany Hayes (12.5) and Stefanie Dolson (10.5) are averaging in double figures in scoring through the first four rounds. However, UConn had five players in double figures in scoring in wins over fourth-seeded Penn State and second-seeded Kentucky at the Kingston regional as Kelly Faris has established herself as a threat offensively.
It is the first time this season that the Huskies have had five players in double figures in back-to-back games.
“With this particular group, it’s like we need everybody to do their part in order for us to be good,’’ UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said. “Like if only Tiffany played well it wouldn’t be enough. This team is different. It’s built differently than any other we’ve really had. Everybody has to do something. We’re not good enough alone. And whether you’re a senior or you’re a freshman, it’s not enough. Everybody has to be right there.’’
Faris has scored a combined 26 points in the last two games. It is the second time this season and the fifth time in her career that she has reached double figures in consecutive games. When she is directly involved in the offense, the Huskies are increasingly more difficult to defend.
The last four seasons opponents geared their game plans towards slowing Moore. The strategy is different this season.
“Poor Maya,’’ Faris said. “It was all on her shoulders. We left her out to dry. She did everything she could. But we got so used to her bailing us out all the time. This year we didn’t have that luxury. We need to rely on everyone to pull it out.’’