No. 1 UConn’s size overwhelms No. 23 RU
The moment was supposed to be just like any other for the Rutgers women’s basketball team.
For more than a month, the Scarlet Knights were impressively consistent, staying true to their style and never playing down to competition.
Notions swirled that something special was brewing. This year’s team learned from folding under pressure last season as head coach C. Vivian Stringer approached 900 career wins.
That all changed when an elite opponent arrived Sunday at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, and suddenly the moment overwhelmed the Knights.
Top-ranked Connecticut dismantled No. 23 Rutgers from the outset, racing to an 18-6 lead in less than five minutes and cruising by double digits most of the way to a 94-64 blowout.
“They hit us so fast that we were reeling like, ‘What the heck happened?’” Stringer said. “It’s much like a boxer in a ring. You hit somebody with a couple of flurries and it really stuns.”
The sting was only temporarily remedied.
UConn (19-0, 6-0) ran one of the more athletic Rutgers teams in recent memory off the floor in transition early. The Huskies collected several easy layups and shot field goals 9-for-11 to start the game.
The Knights (13-4, 4-2) rushed jumpers early in the shot clock and lacked an identity on both ends of the floor.
“We recognized that we had to play transition defense,” said sophomore wing Kahleah Copper. “We weren’t getting back quick enough and recognizing that someone was behind us, or just sprinting back and always turning at half court and just being able to see everybody.”
Rutgers slowed the game down, began hitting higher-quality shots and reduced the deficit.
Then the defending national champions made their own adjustments.
Forced to operate more in the half court, the Huskies carved Rutgers’ zone defense with plentiful passing and effortless backdoor cuts.
Forward Breanna Stewart, the 2013 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, tallied 23 points and nine rebounds, while guard Bria Hartley led all scorers with 30 on 11-of-15 shooting, including 6-of-8 from beyond the arc.
Connecticut emphatically pulled away in the second half, finishing with a decided 44-27 rebounding advantage.
The 6-foot-4 Stewart and 6-foot-5 center Stefanie Dolson caused fits for junior forward Betnijah Laney all afternoon. Laney, one of two AAC players averaging a double-double, scored nothing until the 6:25-minute mark in the first half.
She finished with merely 8 points and four rebounds on 4-for-13 shooting.
“Myself, playing the post, I’m 6 feet and going against a 6-4, so it was really a challenge for me to try to get in and rebound and box out,” Laney said. “Even if I couldn’t grab it, I tried to at least tip it out. I think that’s something that we’re going to talk about, something that we have to work on when we’re going against teams that are way bigger than us — just how to go against that.”
Copper and freshman point guard Tyler Scaife appeared to be the only Knights unfazed by the moment, scoring 25 of the team’s 29 first-half points. The bench produced only three points.
While winners of their last 25 games dating back to last season, the Huskies exceeded their own averages in scoring and efficiency.
The level of dominance surprised even Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, who has coached against Rutgers for nearly 30 years.
“This is not an easy place to come in and get any kind of flow going,” he said. “Rutgers is year-in and year-out one of the best defensive teams in the country, and this is one of the more difficult places to play in the country. ... This is one of the better games that we’ve played down here in a long, long time.”
His long-time counterpart, meanwhile, gave all the credit to Connecticut, which has now topped every ranked team on its schedule by double digits.
Stringer believes the Huskies can be beaten. She insists the Knights will get better.
But when it comes to the competitive gap between the Huskies and the rest of the nation, Stringer holds nothing back.
“It’s Connecticut and then it’s everybody else — period,” she said.
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.