Moore lifts UConn out of funk, into history with national title

Published 5:17 am Wednesday, April 7, 2010

His team whipped like never before, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma walked off the court at halftime so slowly that there was no one else around him.

His left hand was on his hip, his eyes were straight down. His mind was churning with thoughts of how to snap his club out of its funk.

Leave it to Maya Moore to take care of that.

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Moore scored 11 points during a 17-2 run to start the second half of the national championship game, a burst that put the Huskies back in control and on their way to a 53-47 victory over Stanford Tuesday night.

The win, their record-stretching 78th straight, capped the greatest two-year run in women’s college basketball history and earned Auriemma a much better way off the court — on the shoulders of his players.

“I’ve never been prouder of a group of young people,” Auriemma said. “How they fought back today. It was easy for them to pack it in. People wondered, ’What are you going to do the first time we’re in a close game?’ We reacted how champions react.”

UConn trailed 20-12 at halftime.

Yes, 20-12.

The Huskies missed 18 straight shots, from layups to 3-pointers; a pair of missed free throws clanged away, too. Connecticut went 10 minutes, 37 seconds between points, a drought so long that Auriemma looked at his assistant coaches, shook his head and thought, “We may never score again.” Of all the teams in all the halves of all the women’s Final Four games, no team had ever scored this few points.

Yet no matter how badly the Huskies were shooting, they kept playing championship defense. So instead of letting Stanford turn that slump into the foundation for an upset, Connecticut managed to remain within a few baskets. That’s why Auriemma didn’t have to say much at halftime.

“We knew what we had to do,” said Moore, the tournament’s most outstanding player. “We knew we weren’t going to finish the game the way we started.”

They wound up finishing this season the way they did last season: 39-0. National champions. Headed to the White House, as AP player of the year Tina Charles reminded everyone; during the trophy ceremony, she asked to send a message to President Obama, then hollered, “We’re baaaack!”

UConn’s streak is moving into hallowed ground. With an 11-0 start in the fall, the Huskies would top the 88-game streak by John Wooden’s UCLA men in the early 1970s.

They need to win the next five titles to match Wooden’s streak of seven straight championships. Auriemma can appreciate how hard that is considering this was the seventh of his 25-year career. He is one behind Tennessee’s Pat Summitt for most titles among women’s coaches.

Stanford (36-2) was the last team to beat UConn, exactly two years before, at the 2008 Final Four. In the last 15 months, Stanford has beaten everyone its faced except Connecticut, this being the third straight loss.

When they met Dec. 23 in Storrs, Stanford led at halftime, but lost by 12. It was the closest anyone had been to beating the Huskies all season.

This time, victory “was there for the taking,” Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.

UConn trailed by nine points, its most throughout the streak. Connecticut’s six-point win was the first time during the run that the margin wasn’t double-digits.

“You can feel sometimes so close and at the same time feel so far away,” VanDerveer said. “They’re beating these people by 30 or 40 points. We had a chance and I feel like we wasted some opportunities. … We can’t talk about (closing the gap). We’ve got to beat them to close the gap.”

With Charles and Kalana Greene departing, maybe there’s a chance for turnover on top.

Then again, maybe not. The Huskies will still have Moore.

“Maya Moore was the difference,” VanDerveer said. “If she’s on our team, we win. She really stepped up and made big plays for them. Really, she’s a great player and she made big plays.”

Moore finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Charles added nine points, 11 rebounds, and 6 blocks.

Stanford center Jayne Appel closed her career with a game to forget, going 0 for 12 and failing to score. That put more of a burden on Pac-10 player of the year Nnemkadi Ogwumike, and it was too much for the sophomore to handle.

After scoring 38 points in the semifinals, she was held to 11, much of her energy perhaps burned while trying to chase Moore on defense.

“Nneka is a young player,” VanDerveer said. “She will learn from this and watch it and say, ‘Hey, this is what I need to be doing.”’

Kayla Pedersen led the Cardinal with 15 points and 17 rebounds.

The game was played in front of a crowd of 22,936 that included Vice President Joe Biden, who hugged the UConn players after the game, as well as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While Biden showed impartiality in his cheering, Rice was rooting for Stanford — the school at which she served as provost for six years.

She visited with the team at a morning shootaround, offering words of encouragement. Rice had hoped to see the Cardinal win their third championship and first since 1992; they’d already come into the game with the most wins in school history and riding the longest winning streak, 27 in a row.

Stanford allowed the game’s first five points, then ripped off the next 12. The Cardinal lead peaked at 18-9.

Moore put UConn back ahead 23-22 with a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then added a jumper. Charles blocked Ogwumike, starting a fast break that ended with a layup by Moore.

JJ Hones’ 3-pointer with 11:46 left cut Stanford’s deficit to 29-25, but then Charles made her presence felt, scoring seven of the Huskies’ next nine points to make it 38-27 with 7:42 left.

Stanford would only get as close as five the rest of the way.

“Twelve points in the first half was extremely helpful for us, but we weren’t able to capitalize,” Pedersen said. “We kept fighting, kept fighting and things weren’t falling for us. We needed to make our own run and we didn’t really do that.”

This was the sixth time the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the final AP Top 25 poll met for the title. The last came in 2002 when UConn beat Oklahoma in San Antonio.

It also was the lowest-scoring NCAA women’s final, just like Auriemma had jokingly predicted after seeing his team and Stanford struggle to shoot 3s in the semifinals.

“I said the first team to 50 (points) wins, right?” he said. “Who knew?”