Huskies pull out hard-earned win over W.Va.

February, 2, 2010

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut found a new way to beat a top-10 team Tuesday against West Virginia. Not a new margin of victory, mind you, but at least a new plot twist.

For the first time this calendar year, the Huskies didn't lead by double digits at halftime. And when Mountaineers point guard Sarah Miles drilled a pull-up jumper on the first possession of the second half to cut the home team's lead to 32-26, palpable nervous energy among those in attendance -- if not the actual size of a less-than-capacity crowd of 9,745 -- made it feel like a game worthy of the rankings bestowed upon No. 1 Connecticut and No. 8 West Virginia.

For the first time since the Stanford game in December, and in a very different way than that game against a team with the requisite offensive weapons to trade scoring opportunities, Connecticut had a fight on its hands. The Mountaineers didn't have as much talent as the Huskies, but they also arrived without the white flag many opponents seem to take with them to the court.

So while the eventual 80-47 final score and the trademark scoring run that broke open the game seemed familiar, it was, strange as it sounds, a hard-earned 33-point win.

"I thought for 25 minutes we played right with them," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. "A team like Connecticut, you've got to play for 40 minutes. But I thought our girls come out and we weren't intimidated, we come out and got aggressive, we got into them a little bit, created some turnovers and had opportunities to cut it to four a couple of times the first half."

And that, in essence, is the equation underpinning Connecticut's dominance.

Opponents have to play 40 perfect minutes. The Huskies only need 20 minutes.

Sparked by tremendous play off the bench from freshman Kelly Faris, as well as a 15-point, 14-rebound double-double from Maya Moore, Connecticut answered the rare second-half bell.

"I think coaches, players want to be in games like tonight," Geno Auriemma said. "You know, where you really have to earn it, you have to work at it. I told the players during a time out, I said, 'You're going to feel a lot better after tonight's game than you have in some of the other games this year. Even though the score might be the same, it doesn't matter; you will feel like you really, really earned this win. That you had to do some things above and beyond what you normally do to get this win.'"

There was something about Tuesday's game reminiscent of a game Connecticut played last season in Storrs against Louisville (and not just because Carey and Louisville coach Jeff Walz share an ability to defy basic physiology in having any voice left after 40 minutes of bellowing). For most of the first half in that game, the Cardinals stuck to their physical, well-crafted defensive plan and got just enough offense to get that nervous energy simmering in the stands.

The Huskies took umbrage and took control, but two and a half months later, they played (for the third time) in the national championship game.

And like that January game a season ago, the Huskies proved Tuesday that they can take a punch with the best of them.

"I thought West Virginia was, I thought by far the toughest team we've played, physically anyway," Auriemma said. "They worked harder than any other team we played and they were tougher for us than any opponent that we've played so far this year. And for us, it wasn't where we just roll out there and blow them out. It was going to be a grind, and we knew that going in."

After a chance to watch Xavier, Notre Dame and West Virginia in person over the last four days, the Musketeers still strike me as the most intriguing matchup for Connecticut (it obviously helps that they're the only one of the three who has yet to face the reality of such a test). But West Virginia did something few other teams have done this season: It pushed Connecticut for 25 minutes.

It wasn't 40 minutes, but for a half, at least it wasn't boring.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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