It was 12:15 Tuesday morning, an hour after Baylor’s 76-70 win over UConn ended, when Geno Auriemma finally strode into the postgame interview room.
It was also an hour after he picked up a microphone and told who remained among the XL Center’s first sellout in two seasons that he didn’t think his third-ranked team was good enough to beat top-ranked Baylor.
“We could have easily won this game, but we’re not smart enough to win it yet,” Auriemma told the media. “Individually, I think our team has to understand that as individuals we’re not good enough to beat this team. It has to be a collective effort, like it was during the first 15 minutes of the first half.”
That’s when UConn was ascending with a 22-14 lead after two of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ 26 points with 5:20 to play in the half.
The lead would grow to 27-18 with 3:29 to play after another hoop by Mosqueda-Lewis. And that’s when things started to change.
“I think we were in control of the game the whole first half, until the last three minutes. It just goes to show you, against a really good team, when mentally you make a couple of mistakes, how quickly the game can change,” Auriemma said. “As well as we played defensively, and executed defensively, it should have been a 15-point game in the first half instead of a three-point game [UConn led, 29-26].
“I don’t know that the last three minutes of the first half was the deciding factor of the game, but I think it was indicative of things that happened at various points in the game.”
UConn, a team that allowed only 46.8 points a game in its first 25 games, allowed 50 points in the second half.
UConn, a team that has staunchly guarded every inch of 6-foot-8 All-American center Brittney Griner in the first half, essentially lost its defensive focus on her in the second half during which she was 8 of 12 from the field.
“You’re not going to be able to guard Brittney Griner by yourself for 40 minutes,” Auriemma said. “In the first half, Stefanie [Dolson] guarded her with a lot of help from others. In the second half, she didn’t get help from anyone. Everything we did right in the first half, we didn’t do right in the first half. I thought Stefanie was phenomenal.”
Combine that with cumulative problems on the offensive boards (21-14 for Baylor), shooting trouble (8 of 24 from three), inability to get to the free throw line (4 of 4) and 18 turnovers to get the elements of disappointing defeat.
“It seems like every big game we come into, we get up, we hit them in the mouth first, but we come up short,” said Mosqueda-Lewis, who was 11 of 14 from the floor and had a career-high 15 rebounds. “Once their team turns up the volume it seems like we don’t recover from it. Once we change our attitudes or something we are just going to keep getting the same result in big games like this.”
Too few UConn players performed to the standard set by Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson, who pounded with Griner for 38 minutes.
Freshman Morgan Tuck was excellent, scoring 11 points with five rebounds in 25 minutes. And Bria Hartley, who played just four minutes in the 20-point win at Rutgers on Saturday, scored 13, but was 5 of 12.
“I think Baylor did a great job of pressuring us and they got us rattled a few times,” Dolson said. “That is something we are going to have to work on, keeping our composure and make sure that we stick together and never stop moving. We need to make sure that we are running our plays correctly, listening to each other and talking to each other.”
Problem was, neither freshmen Moriah Jefferson or Breanna Stewart scored. Stewart, the nation’s high school player of the year, barely played (seven minutes).
“When you are a young player and you get stunned at some point of the season, it takes a lot to recover. I don’t know when it happened, but right now Breanna Stewart’s mind isn’t going to let her be the kind of player we think she can be – right now, today,” Auriemma said.
“Maybe in a month it will change. Right now it’s not good. But that’s what it is. She is struggling physically with things on a regular basis and it gets into your head.”
ophomore Kiah Stokes played only three minutes in the second half.
And without assistance, such as Griner (25 points) received from Brooklyn Pope (18 points, nine rebounds), the Huskies were up a creek without a paddle. Auriemma said even Mosqueda-Lewis’ effort merited review.
“I told her [Mosqueda-Lewis] that this was the kind of game Maya Moore used to have,” Auriemma said. “The only difference was about a seven-minute stretch where she wasn’t involved. Maya would have scored 50 in a game like this. But Kaleena is just learning how much more she can do than what she did.”
Ironically, Moore, fresh from a championship season in China and the NBA All-Star, was sitting behind the UConn bench Monday night.
Griner, who will join Moore as a No. 1 pick in the WNBA in April, reached 3,000 career points with two free throws with 1:05 to play. She is just the eighth player in the game’s history to do so.
“Brittney scored her 3,000th point here in a big game; a significant game,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey.