Loss to Duke unmasks defending champs' flaws

Monday, January 5, 2004

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Lindsay Harding dribbled nearly the length of the court unimpeded, slicing through Connecticut's defense.

Looking up, the speedy Duke guard whipped a pass to Jessica Foley on the right wing. Before a defender could thwart things, Foley let fly a 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave Duke a 68-67 upset of the top-ranked Huskies, ending UConn's 69-game home winning streak.

Harding, Foley and the rest of the Blue Devils used their impressive quickness to wear down the flagging Huskies in the closing minutes and erase a big deficit Saturday night.

Duke also highlighted the flaws UConn coach Geno Auriemma insists he has been trying to conceal since last season's run to a second straight national championship.

"We were exposed for some of the things that we're not good at," said Auriemma, whose team squandered a 20-point lead in the first half. "I kind of feel pretty good that we've been able to hide it for a couple of years now."

UConn's home winning streak was an NCAA mark it shared with Tennessee. But the record books mattered little to the players or Auriemma, who turned this school into a perennial power.

"We just panicked, big-time," forward Ashley Battle said. "We choked."

UConn's collapse came before a crowd of 16,294, its 103rd straight home sellout, and a national TV audience.

The Huskies have won the last two NCAA titles with teams that are quite different. The 2002 champs finished 39-0 behind four senior All-Americans: Sue Bird, Tamika Williams, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones. Diana Taurasi, the lone returning starter from that squad, helped deliver another title in 2003.

Last season, the Huskies set an NCAA mark of 70 consecutive wins with a team supposedly rebuilding. Auriemma says the margin for error is slim.

"Unless we do everything right, unless everybody is exactly where they're supposed to be and every pass is delivered at exactly the right time, we're going to struggle," he said. "Maybe that's my fault. Maybe it comes down to bad recruiting, bad coaching."

On Saturday, Auriemma had few answers after his team dominated for 35 minutes.

Duke's guards, led by Alana Beard, pressed furiously in the closing minutes and the Huskies wilted. Down 14 with four minutes to play, the Blue Devils forced seven turnovers and finished with an 18-3 run. Beard scored 20 of her 21 points in the second half. Her jumper with 40.2 seconds left made it 65-65.

Taurasi scored 16 points of 5-of-16 shooting. Her running jumper with 4.7 seconds left put the Huskies up 67-65, but UConn's lack of overall quickness was evident when Harding grabbed the inbounds pass, raced downcourt and found Foley.

"In a situation like that, we've got to be smarter and we didn't play like a smart team at all," Taurasi said.

The Huskies are without sophomore guard Nicole Wolff, out for the season with a torn knee ligament. UConn also lacks post depth. Willnett Crockett, a 6-foot-2 forward/center, is recovering from an ankle sprain and played one minute Saturday. Liz Sherwood, a 6-4 freshman, has promise but is untested in big games.

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