Let’s be clear about a couple of things in the wake of Monday’s 76-70 loss to No. 1 Baylor at the XL Center …
The Huskies remain one of the Top 3 teams in the country. They will still receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It just will not be the No. 1 overall seed, which they could have been in position to earn with a win over Baylor. With wins over Notre Dame and UConn this season, Baylor has all but locked up the No. 1 overall seed for the second straight year.
Being the No. 2 or No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA tournament simply means that instead of likely having to beat either Baylor or Notre Dame to win an NCAA record-tying eighth national championship, UConn likely will now have to beat both teams in a span of three days at New Orleans Arena in April. Until that opportunity presents itself, if it ever does, the Huskies need to make some changes.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma is hopeful that the sixth loss in the last 10 games against a Top 5 team will deliver a proverbial wake-up call to the Huskies.
“I would think,’’ Auriemma said. “Obviously, that’s the plan. “I’ve always said this is why you want to play these games at this time of the year. Because if we didn’t play this game, we might have played somebody we beat 100-35 and we would all think we’re really, really good. So playing a game like this with a month left before the NCAA tournament, I can’t think of anything better to do at this point in the season. Absolutely, it’s going to help. There’s no way that it can’t help you. If I didn’t think it would help, I wouldn’t do it. But there isn’t any scenario I could see that’s better than playing a game like this in the middle of February.’’
Baylor shot 61.3 percent from the field during a 50-point second half performance Monday. UConn had held 17 of its first 25 opponents this season to 50 points or less.
The Lady Bears had 21 offensive rebounds in the game, the most allowed by UConn this season, and scored 22 points off of 18 turnovers.
The Huskies led by as many as 11 points in the first half (16-5). They then went scoreless over the next 4:35, missing six straight shots as Baylor scored seven straight points to get back in the game.
Leading 27-18 with 3:29 left in the first half, they missed their last four shots and committed three turnovers as Baylor ended the half with an 8-2 run.
UConn led 41-34 with 15:46 left in the game. Baylor took control with a 31-17 run over the next 9:29. Brittney Griner had 11 points in this stretch and the Lady Bears made 11 of 12 shots and 6-of-7 free throws.
“That’s how fragile all this is,’’ Auriemma said. “That it comes down to a couple possessions or it comes down to one shot. The Final Four game (last season). The Notre Dame game this year. It comes down to two or three possessions and it’s a whole different ballgame. But those two or three possessions… I bet you (Monday) there’s five possessions that you look if we don’t turn it over and we get a bucket it changes the whole game.’’
Auriemma is right. The Huskies have been here before …
UConn led by five with 11:34 left in the game against Notre Dame Jan. 5. The Huskies ultimately went scoreless over the final 2:28, missing their last six shots in a 73-72 loss.
UConn led 32-25 with 3:20 left in the first half of the national semifinal against Notre Dame last April in Denver. They would blow a two-point lead in the final 11 seconds of regulation. And leading 70-67 with 4:22 left in overtime, the Huskies were finished by a 14-2 run by the Irish as they missed six of their next seven shots.
“Coach has been telling us for the longest time you guys can’t change for a day and think that that’s going too fix everything,’’ sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “You can’t change for a week and think that’s going to fix what’s going to happen in a month. We have to make sure that it’s a conscious effort every single day and listen to those who are trying to help you. Until we make that conscious effort in practice every single day nothing’s going to change. “It’s not so far away where we can’t reach it. We see it. But until we connect all the dots it’s not going to work.’’
Said freshman Morgan Tuck: “I guess there’s something that’s missing, but it’s not just one thing that’s missing. We just have to make sure we play as a collective team and as a group because we show flashes that we can. It’s just we’re not doing it the whole game. But I can’t pinpoint like one thing that’s making us not do that.’’
The Huskies will not play another elite team until their rematch with Notre Dame in South Bend in the regular season finale March 4. Can the necessary changes be made? Mosqueda-Lewis thinks so.
“It can be changed,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “But it’s going to take something within everybody individually. Once everyone decides individually that they want to be a part of the team and we want to … Not even be a part of the team. Everybody wants this team to do great. Everybody wants this team and knows this team can be great. But we all just have to work together every single day.’’