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Likely no relying less on Moore for UConn

Huskies struggle when she slumps

It took Maya Moore (23) time to get going vs. Georgetown; all her skills will be needed right off the bat against Duke. It took Maya Moore (23) time to get going vs. Georgetown; all her skills will be needed right off the bat against Duke. (Barbara Johnston/Associated Press)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA — The atmosphere changed in the arena, suddenly, as the nearly 6,000 people at the Liacouras Center began to believe. This wasn’t just a stumble by the No. 1 University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. This was a challenge. The Huskies — those unshakeable, indomitable Huskies — really might be beaten. Maya Moore wasn’t being Maya Moore. And on this team, this season, that is a problem.

“It’s almost like there was a point in time [Sunday] where I expected Howard Cosell to come over and shout in my ear, ‘Down goes UConn!’ ’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Like this is the story that everybody’s been waiting to see. That’s a lot more compelling than, ‘UConn wins again.’

“There’s something to be said that people are fascinated by a team losing that almost never loses. The novelty of winning all the time kind of wears off and people are attracted to the upset, the dominant team going down. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’’

They did, coming back from 7 points down to take out Georgetown, 68-63. They moved on to tonight’s Elite Eight NCAA Tournament matchup with Duke, a team they “thumped,’’ as Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie put it, by 36 points Jan. 31. But Sunday’s game did more than underscore the fact that a team with one loss in three seasons might be vulnerable, as Auriemma said. It also made clear just how important Moore is to this team.

She is everything.

“This is the year that speaks more of Maya Moore because she had to carry this team on her back,’’ said Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy after her team lost to UConn. “It’s easy when you have Tina Charles down in the middle.’’

That’s no longer the case, Charles graduating after last season, putting the responsibility squarely on the player McCallie yesterday called, “the best player in the world’’ and “the greatest women’s basketball player alive today.’’

UConn’s offense stalled Sunday, affected by Moore’s inability to sink a shot, disrupted by the Georgetown defense. That is, until the final minutes. That was when Moore scored 10 of UConn’s final 13 points, putting away the Hoyas. She finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds, statistics that might lead the casual observer to believe Moore dominated. She did not — at least not for the first 35 minutes.

“She just firmly believes that everything she does should turn out exactly the way she wants it to turn out,’’ Auriemma said. “She thinks she can control her own destiny. And when there are 35 minutes where she can’t, that doesn’t stop her from thinking that the next five minutes, [she’s] going to. The ones that aren’t great competitors or don’t turn out to be that kind of great player don’t have that.’’

The problem, of course, wasn’t any one thing. Georgetown’s defense played a role. So did the struggles of freshmen Stefanie Dolson inside and Bria Hartley at guard. But it was clear that Moore shooting 4 for 17 over the first three quarters of the game was the biggest impediment to the UConn offense running as smoothly as it needs to, as it almost always has.

“If you’re limited as to how many ways you can beat teams and those start to slip away during a game, that’s what I mean by being vulnerable,’’ Auriemma said. “Certainly two years ago there was nothing anybody could do to keep us from winning. Last year, a little more, but not so much. This year, you saw it. If Maya’s not making shots or if Tiffany [Hayes] is struggling, it’s difficult for us.

“We sometimes don’t allow it to be that evident. We try to hide it. But it’s difficult for us. And it’s going to be difficult [tonight].’’

That depends on Moore. Because if she’s on, Duke — whose players seemed frustrated yesterday at having to answer question after question about their blowout loss to UConn — is unlikely to have an answer for the Huskies.

As McCallie said, “We’ve never beaten them. So we have no idea how to beat them. We’ll see. We’re going to have to find something out.’’

Like how to stop Moore, for more than just the first 35 minutes of a game. Because even having an off day, even having been contained for that long, she figured out a way to turn things around. Seems to go that way for the best player in women’s college basketball, and beyond.

“I think it’s a combination of just not giving up, not getting rattled, just continuing to believe that your shot’s going to go in, and then a combination of your teammates believing in you as well,’’ Moore said. “I get confidence from my teammates, just confidence in everything and all the work that I put in, our coaches have put in, helping us with our offense — and then the ball went in, too.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

Women’s NCAA

Who: UConn (35-1) vs. Duke (32-3)

What: Philadelphia Regional final

When: Tonight, 7

TV: ESPN