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UConn's defense dominates Oregon from beginning to end

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Even with their team leading by a comfortable 25 points after two quarters of the Bridgeport Regional final, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and longtime associate coach Chris Dailey shared an extended and animated conversation as they walked to the locker room.

Connecticut had just played 20 minutes of the best defensive basketball most on hand had likely seen, no small feat in an arena filled to capacity with people who have presumably been watching the Huskies for quite a few years. Pressured at every turn, Oregon committed 17 turnovers in the first half. Coaching a team against Connecticut for the first time, Oregon's Kelly Graves described it as "the shock of how good they are," like a wave washing over the Ducks.

But the conversation between Auriemma and Dailey halfway through UConn's 90-52 win on Monday hinted at something less than total satisfaction.

"We were talking about how we were guarding the ball screens," Dailey explained. "When we did it the way we were supposed to, it worked. And when we didn't -- we were just talking about whether we wanted to mix it up and try it a different way in the second half."

They did so, at least a little. But mostly they came to the same conclusion as Graves and everyone else.

"The way we were doing it, when we did it correctly, worked perfectly," Dailey said.

Perfection is a standard that comes up a lot around this program. A standard that begins on one end of the court.

The person who for much of the night looked least impressed with what was both a record-breaking performance and a performance worthy of that record was the one who now has more wins in the NCAA tournament than any coach in women's college basketball history.

Which explains something about how the teams Auriemma coached have won 113 tournament games, breaking a tie with Pat Summitt. How those teams advanced to 18 Final Fours, including now 10 in a row. It explains how a program could win 111 consecutive games in all competition.

And it goes a long way to explaining why this particular Connecticut team heads to Dallas and the Final Four after a victory against an endlessly promising but entirely overmatched Oregon. It was a performance that, appearances to the contrary, tickled even the coach.

"There's not much you can say about what just happened," said Auriemma, as unlikely an utterer of that phrase as almost anyone on the planet. "Right from the opening tap, we just had a look and a feel about how we were playing and what we were trying to do.

"And I thought our defense was spectacular right from the opening possession."

That is every Connecticut team's identity, what connects unbeaten national champions with the team that beat Toledo by a single point for Auriemma's first NCAA tournament win in 1991.

It is also the bedrock on which this particular team built its own identity distinct from those that came before. They played defense, which opened up a world of possibilities when it came to what else they could do.

If what drove Auriemma were scoring more points than an opponent or winning more games than any of his peers or predecessors, the scenes wouldn't unfold as they did Monday and in every game. He wouldn't crouch in a defensive stance with his team up double digits. He wouldn't grimace or chew his lip or peer in open-mouthed consternation at players the same way Summitt used to glare at them through so many postseason wins.

Auriemma talked after the game about the idea that his players were the only people in the world of women's basketball who didn't have doubts about this current group, those left behind after Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck took four consecutive national titles with them into the WNBA. He didn't exempt himself from the other group -- those with questions.

When the team convened for the preseason, the early results weren't promising. But there were more worries at one end than the other.

"I guess it was probably more true on the offensive end," Dailey said. "Because defensively, I think, if kids want to work and be a good defensive team, you can be a good defensive team. But we were really worried about how we were going to score."

Katie Lou Samuelson didn't think she was a good defensive player when she arrived at Connecticut last season. She knew the coaches didn't think she was, even without Auriemma taking every opportunity to remind her of that assessment. As Dailey said, the days of being able to recruit players purely for defense, at least at the very top of the sport, are gone. Players have to be able to score for teams to win titles. But to play at Connecticut, they also have to defend. Or learn how.

"[You learn] that it's first and that comes before offense," Samuelson said. "If you don't play defense, which coach says I don't, you might struggle to get on the court and get playing time. The coaches really push you to be able to learn."

That's true no matter the situation, losing in practice or up by 30 points in a regional final.

With a little more than a minute to play in the third quarter and her team ahead by 30 points, Connecticut's Gabby Williams slipped around an offensive player who thought she had the defender sealed off. Williams tipped away the pass, collected the loose ball and sprinted toward the other end, teammate Napheesa Collier with her almost step for step. Neither had come off the court to that point in the game, playing every minute in those first three quarters.

Williams made the pass, Collier finished and the crowd roared. Auriemma just glanced down, hands on hip, then turned to the other end of the court and the next defensive possession.

For Samuelson, that perpetual focus on defense means working individually with assistant Shea Ralph to learn to see a move ahead, to read the passing lanes and understand what the opposing offense wants to do, as well as that team's own players do. And on a night when Williams and Collier earned the headlines with 53 points between them on a variety of transition baskets, inside finishes and long jumpers that tore Oregon's own defensive game plan to shreds, Samuelson took quiet satisfaction even from a game in which she didn't hit a 3-pointer for the first time in 11 games. Five steals will do that. Satisfaction, if not enjoyment. After all, can defense be as fun as offense?

"No," Samuelson said succinctly. "Offense is something that kind of comes easy. So playing on defense is definitely tougher and harder to do. But it is more rewarding, actually, when you do better on defense. For example, I feel great because I feel like I played good defense tonight."

It is why it wasn't ever much of a game. A 17-0 run fueled by Oregon turnovers put Connecticut ahead 23-7 in the first quarter. It never got much closer.

"I've always felt what sets them apart from everyone else is the defense," Graves said. "They give you nothing."

Which is precisely the point.

"We didn't want to give them any hope," Williams said.

Dailey said that in her mind, with the schedule Connecticut faced this season, she thought it was a team that could lose 10 games. It was also a team she thought most people wouldn't want to play by the time March rolled around. She wasn't disappointed to be only half right.

So just like the past four years, hope is in short supply for the rest of the country as it gathers for the season's final weekend.

"I was probably happier in the locker room with this group than I have been in a long, long time," Auriemma said.

Even if you wouldn't always know it from watching the winningest coach in NCAA tournament history.