CHAPEL HILL — It was a Monday night mid-season clash of women's basketball titans, and a potential preview of a Final Four matchup. But, after the top-ranked and unbeaten University of Connecticut Huskies humiliated the second-ranked and previously unbeaten Tar Heels, it was hard to picture Sylvia Hatchell's squad anywhere near the trophy that will be hoisted on April 7 in St. Louis.
The game, which stood at 88-58 when it mercifully ended, was a bloodbath as Geno Auriemma's Huskies proved to be faster, stronger, tougher and smarter than their host, a team that had rolled up a 17-0 record with an average victory margin of 26 points. Although Auriemma tried to avoid outright crowing afterward, he did allow that he thought the Heels may have been shocked to finally face a team that could run the floor with them. Hatchell, for her part, said more than once that the game had been more physical than her team was accustomed to.
The key statistic of this blowout is the rebounding margin: UConn got 53 of them, including 21 on the offensive end. The Heels: 32 total, 12 on offense. Behind the effective perimeter shooting of Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore, the Huskies were able to stretch out out the Heels' defense. The result was a cascade of back-door cuts, some with no weak-side help within 5 feet.
On the Heels' side, there was poor passing, rushed shots in transition and prolonged disappearances from key scorers. As Hatchell noted afterward, the Tar Heels depend on slashing drives to the basket by its wing players. The Heels occasionally showed signs of life on the few occasions when Rashanda McCants (13 pts on 5-15 shooting), Jessica Breland (10 pts) and Italee Lucas (15 pts, but 1-6 on 3s) were able to take the ball to the basket. But all too often, a rousing offensive play was quickly negated a few seconds later by a Huskies backdoor lay-up.
Although freshman center Chay Shegog appeared noticeably more fit than when I saw her in November, and hustled for 31 minutes, she was no match for the Huskies' more experienced and far more aggressive front court. No doubt the game was difficult for her, and both Auriemma and Hatchell took pains to tell reporters that she will, in time, become a formidable player. ("A trial by fire," Hatchell said.)
Unbelievably, given the result, the Huskies entered the game having to grapple with the loss, only two days earlier, of freshman starting point guard Caroline Doty, who ruptured her ACL in a game against Syracuse. After the Monday morning shoot-around, Auriemma told reporters, he made the decision to start sophomore guard Lorin Dixon. Dixon easily shredded the Heels' backcourt, passing out six assists and hitting all five of her field goal attempts en route to 14 points.
The Heels will have better nights than this one, to be sure. But, judging from the dazed expressions on the faces of Heather Claytor and Lucas as they sat in the press room afterward, it may take some time for the team to rebuild its shattered confidence.