Many programs aspire to be great. Some reach the intersection, get stuck in traffic, grow frustrated and decide it’s easier to just turn and settle for good.
One of the talking points UConn has always used to define its winning way is how it perceives itself heading into big games. The Huskies simply believe success rests more in how they perform than how their opponent does.
Does it work? UConn has played in the last five Final Fours and won seven national championships since 1995. What do you think?
No. 4 Duke is currently the nation’s only unbeaten team (16-0). Two years ago, with a vastly different team and 20-0 record, the Blue Devils came to Gampel Pavilion and left on the tail end of a staggering 36-point loss.
“I don’t know, maybe that’s what happens when you don’t see a lot of each other,” Geno Auriemma said. “I was really shocked by that game (87-51). I never expected that. And then it happened again in the Eastern regional in Trenton [where UConn won, 75-40]. You just don’t expect that. But Maya [Moore] had that impact on many teams.”
In fact, over the last three seasons, the Blue Devils have lost four straight to UConn by margins of 33, 36, 35 and 16. And two of those defeats have come at Cameron Indoor Arena by an average of 24.5 points.
Make no mistake; Duke has designs on greatness. But when it comes to UConn, the road to the throne has been paved with nails.
“We aspire to be at a place where it is all about Duke, more about what we do than the opponent,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “But we are not there yet. “
Monday, the Blue Devils get another chance when they play the No. 3 Huskies at Gampel Pavilion. And they will do so with the understanding that there is still much to prove.
“We’re just kind of in our world, trying to get better, recognizing that there’s a lot of great teams out there,” McCallie said last week. “It hasn’t been anything that anyone’s really thought about. To me, that kind of stuff is banquet material, end-of-year stuff, not during-year stuff.”
The Blue Devils are stacked again, seemingly with an answer to every issue UConn can present. They have elite players in the post [sophomore Elizabeth Williams] and on the wings [Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston]. They also lead the nation in three-point shooting, draining treys at a rate of 43.2 percent.
“They are undefeated and you can point to Elizabeth Williams as one of the reason,” Auriemma said. “But Chelsea Gray is really, really good in the open court. She can make a lot of plays for her teammates. And Tricia Liston has become more of a go-to offensive player. She is so solid, kind of like their Kelly [Faris]. She does the little things they need and she makes shots when she is open. They are pretty well-balanced team.”
They have laid waste to just about every opponent, winning their games by an average of 30.8, second only to UConn’s 36.5. And they’ve allowed an average of just a tad (48.2) less than the Huskies (47.5) to be scored against them this season.
But how it all will work against UConn is still to be determined. Gray said the loss at Gampel in 2011 still resonates.
“It was one of the roughest film sessions we’ve had,” Gray said. “I never want to walk away from that feeling. I remember that feeling still to this day.”
Of course, the UConn players are also aware of how psychology plays into pregame hype.
“I would probably think they are using [the defeats] to motivate themselves,” said UConn center Stefanie Dolson, who scored a career-high 25 points in Saturday’s win over Syracuse to become the 36th player in program history to surpass 1,000 career points (1,017). “And they would use it to fuel their whether they lost or just didn’t play very well.”
Dolson is just one of many UConn players who have also been teammates with Williams and Duke guard Alexis Jones in USA Basketball, which just adds to the special dynamic of the game.
Williams, a former UConn recruit, is a shot-blocking force with a pre-med mind.
“She is a very good post,” UConn’s Breanna Stewart said. “She can go to the basket with either hand. She can also hit from 15 [feet] if you give her the chance. But at the same time, she’s a pretty big defensive force, too.”
What it will likely come down to is belief and execution, as it usually always does. McCallie is taking nothing for granted.
“You get a bunch of dominos and you’re trying to knock them down,” McCallie said. “You treat every game the same and you just try to get better after every game. There’s no level of satisfaction except there is an excitement to keep going.”