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Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rutgers Lauds UConn: They Are the Best and Let's Accept It

By Mel Greenberg

PISCATAWAY, N.J. –
After top-ranked, undefeated and defending NCAA champion Connecticut made quick work of host No. 23 Rutgers here Sunday afternoon producing a lop-sided 94-64 victory in the next-to-last regular season conference matchups between the two traditional national heavyweights in women’s basketball, coach C. Vivian Stringer came close to pronouncing the contingent guided by her Hall of Fame counterpart Geno Auriemma as the best of all time.

“It’s Connecticut and it’s everybody else,” Stringer said first of the current national landscape in the sport. She noted a previous 83-61 nonconference wipeout of then-No. 2 Duke last month in Durham, N.C. “Whether people want to deal with it or not. Talent wise it’s clear they are there. Coaching wise, it’s clear they are there.”

Of course, for the Huskies to join the company of previous UConn contingents, let alone some of the other greats in NCAA and previously AIAW history, more postseason accomplishments need to be added to resume of the current ensemble of spectacular talent.

But Sunday’s performance offered enough of a sampling for Stringer to heap high praise.

The 94 points were the most by an opponent against the normally defensively Scarlet Knights in 11 years since Texas Tech matched that total in a 94-81 triumph in the Lone Star State on Jan. 2, 2003.

“I haven’t been happy or satisfied with the defense at all,” Stringer said. “But we haven’t spent a lot of time on it. We’re scoring more points. But that’s something we can address in a big way. We understand what’s happening so that’s not that difficult to address.”

Since that 2002-03 season Rutgers has gone 143-22 at home and many of the losses in that span were to UConn, which became the first team since the opening tip in November to blitz Stringer’s forces making more than half its shots at 56.5 percent.

Rutgers next goes to Central Florida in Orlando, Wednesday, while UConn hosts Memphis.

Senior All-American Bria Hartley, who played with a left jammed thumb that was bandaged, set career highs off the attack with 30 points, shooting 11-for-15 from the field, including and 6-of-8 three pointers.

Backcourt mate Moriah Jefferson had 13 points and in two games this week against formidable opponents the sophomore from Texas ran the point in 70 minutes played out of a possible 80 without making a turnover.

“I’ve always said if you are not a great player at Connecticut by your sophomore year, it’s hard to be an All-American,” Auriemma noted.

Sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, on the way to national player of the year following up her most outstanding player honor at the Women’s Final Four in April, had 23 points and nine rebounds for the Huskies.

“Remember when Geno said, “`Ihave Diana Taurasi and you don’t’?” Stringer said. “That’s what he means. Breanna’s the No. 1 player in the country, right? She’s the best player in the nation. It doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten but it’s Connecticut and everybody else.”

Center Stefanie Dolson, another all-American, had a double double with 16 points and 10 rebounds while all-American Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis had four points and four rebounds.

“We’ve got such great balance,” Auriemma said. “Stewie and Stef kept things together. It was a great team effort. Everybody played great.”

The Huskies (19-0, 6-0 American Athletic Conference), who began the week on the road in Waco, Texas Monday night fending off the only serious challenge of the season to date with a 66-55 non-league win over Baylor, did not lose a step in bolting to a lightning 18-6 lead and never be seriously threatened the rest of the way before a season-high crowd of 6,480 in the Louis A. Brown Athletic Center.

A large showing of UConn fans making the relatively short trip South created some semblance of neutrality in what had been most times a hostile environment for the visitors when both played under the old Big East banner prior to this season when they entered the re-branded leftover of the fomer configuration.

That in-house rivalry will become history after this season when Rutgers moves to the Big Ten but Stringer and Auriemma each indicated during their portion of the postgame press conference that they will likely to continue to meet in the future just as UConn is set to resume playing Notre Dame, which has moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“It was one of the better games we’ve played here in a very long time,” Auriemma said of the ease with which his team went about its business. “But it didn’t even feel like we were at Rutgers. I don’t know what’s going on. The last two games – maybe the fans are feeling sorry for me now that I am getting older. When I was younger they didn’t treat me like that.”

Maybe Auriemma’s rise to guiding the United States women to the Olympic gold medal in London in 2012 and returning for a second shot in Brazil in 2016 has something to do with the kinder treatment.

In this one, Rutgers rookie Tyler Scaife again reached a career high with 22 points for the Scarlet Knights (13-4, 4-2) while Kahleah Copper, a 6-1 sophomore guard from Prep Charter in Philadelphia, scored20 points on a day when the combo might have been good enough to handle most other teams in the nation.

But that was all that could be done by the home team that saw season-long double double queen Betnijah Laney being held to eight points and four-rebounds off her averages of 13.4 points per game and 10.7 rebounds.

The week on Rutgers side had reached a peak Monday when the Scarlet Knights off a nine-game win streak, returned to the rankings for the first time since spending the entire 2011-12 season in the poll.

But on Tuesday night they let an AAC game get away from them when 24 turnovers and zero help from the bench factored in an upset 74-73 overtime loss to host Memphis.

Meanwhile, Stringer, who will soon be joined by NCAA Division II Bentley’s Barb Stevens as the newest member of the 900-career victory club, gushed over Connecticut’s play.

“Connecticut is a great team,” she said. “The speed which they ran and the accuracy, it’s almost like you have to be there to see it. Some of us knew about it and some of us forgot about it.

“Without question this is the best Connecticut team I’ve seen in all the year’s I’ve watched Connecticut. I don’t know who we’ve seen that’s better. You may argue that the point guard (Jefferson) isn’t as experienced, but sometimes when you are quick like that, maybe you don’t have to have experience. You know how to get to the hole and you know how to deliver. Geno has a great group of kids and he has to be happy.”

Stringer, who has been around for all the great teams in the modern history of the women’s game, including a few of her own, was asked about Connecticut’s place among them.

Misunderstanding the question at first, she spoke of the attributes of the current UConn class and what they bring to the table compared with Huskies greats of yesteryear in mind.

“I don’t I know I’ve ever seen two big people function like that,” Stringer said of Dolson and Stewart.

“You’re talking about a 6-5 Dolson. When I saw her in high school the first thing that impressed me about her was her passing ability. Incredible. And then she obviously worked. This girl is taking a three like nobody’s business. And you know good and well when she drops it on the inside, she can get it done.

“We recruited her and Stewart from Syracuse, too. (Stewart’s) an incredible athlete, who shoots very well, and posts up. It doesn’t get any better than Mosqueda-Lewis, an incredible shooter.

“(Jefferson) is a one-man press breaker. They’ve never had anybody like that who can break a press by herself. You got Mosqueda-Lewis, the best in the land at dropping the three-pointer.

“Without question this is the best team. I would love to know who we’ve seen better.”

But when she was asked again the intention of the question, she said, “You mean the best of all time, like the Cheryl Miller’s?”

Then she smiled and said, “You know what? I’ll still go with UConn.”

-- Mel






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