By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis felt anger and disappointment. Four weeks shy of Selection Monday, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s sophomore knows exactly where the Huskies stand.
UConn has played the two teams it will likely have to beat to reach its ultimate goal in New Orleans at the NCAA Final Four at home and is now 0-2.
Reigning Player of the Year Brittney Griner scored 21 of her 25 points in the second half Monday night as No. 1 Baylor topped the third-ranked Huskies 76-70 at a sold-out XL Center in Hartford.
“They were two big games and we have to learn how to win them,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “These are the games we have to win to win the national championship. Unless we can win these games we’re not going to be the best team that we can be.”
The Bears (25-1) trailed by as many as 11 in the first half and overcame a seven-point second-half deficit to win for the 23rd straight time and 65th time in their last 66 games. UConn (24-2) had won 12 straight since its 73-72 loss to Notre Dame at Gampel Pavilion Jan. 5.
Since the final game of the 2010-11 season in Indianapolis, UConn is 1-7 against Baylor and Notre Dame and 56-1 against the rest of women’s college basketball.
“Are we ready to win this kind of game? We could have easily won this game but we’re not smart enough to win it yet,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Individually, I think our team has to understand that based on us as individuals we’re not good enough to beat this team. It has to be a collective effort like it was during the first 15 minutes of the first half. It has to be our team against their team.”
But the Huskies don’t have a dominant 6-foot-8 post presence like Griner and they don’t have a point guard like Odyssey Sims. The junior All-American was just 3-for-15 from the floor but had seven assists, no turnovers, and two key steals.
But Griner was too much. She was 8-for-12 in the second half from the floor after making just two baskets in the opening 20 minutes.
“In the first half, I didn’t have a good half,” Griner said. “I didn’t help out my team too much. I wanted to come out in the second half a little bit more aggressive than I did in the first so I could do something to help out.”
UConn jumped out to a 16-5 lead and was in control for most of the first half. It was still a nine-point advantage with 3:30 left but Baylor closed on an 8-2 run to pull within 29-26 at the break.
“It just goes to show you against a really good team, when mentally you make a couple of mistakes, how quickly the game can change,” Auriemma said. “As well as we played defensively and executed defensively, it should have been a 15-point game in the first half instead of a three-point game. We knew as coaches they weren’t going to get 26 in the second half. That wasn’t going to happen. I don’t know that the last three minutes of the first half was the deciding factor of the game, but I think it was indicative of things that happened at various points in the game that decided the game.”
Baylor scored the first four points of the second half to take its first lead. But UConn responded with a 12-4 run. Bria Hartley’s layup and two free throws by Stefanie Dolson after a Flagrant 1 foul on Griner, put the Huskies up 41-34 with 15:46 left.
The Bears, though, showed their championship form by coming back with eight unanswered points. Sims’ 3-pointer with 9:48 to go gave Baylor the lead for good and they stretched their advantage to 65-58 with 6:17 remaining.
A Morgan Tuck trey and two Mosqueda-Lewis baskets cut it to 67-65 with 3:53 left and Mosqueda-Lewis’ bid for the lead from long range was right on line but short. Two hoops by Brooklyn Pope sparked an 8-2 run that put it away.
“It’s not like we didn’t have them on the ropes,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “It’s not like we weren’t right there to beat them. This is the second time we’ve been up against them and let the lead slip away from us. We were up 11 at Baylor last year and gave it back. We came out we were killing them on the boards, killing them on offense, getting stops on defense and we gave it back to them.
“It seems like every big game we come into, we get up, we hit them in the mouth first, but we come up short. Once their team turns up the volume it seems like we don’t recover from it. Unless we change our attitudes or something we are just going to keep getting the same result in big games like this.”
Griner’s final point, a free throw with 1:05 left, was the 3,000th of her career. Pope added 18 points and nine rebounds off the Baylor bench.
Mosqueda-Lewis was outstanding in defeat with 26 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots. Hartley added 13 points while Dolson stayed on the floor for all 40 minutes battling Griner and managed 11 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Freshman Morgan Tuck provided a spark off the bench with 11 points.
“I thought Stefanie Dolson played great. She just didn’t get any help from anyone but Kaleena,” Auriemma said. “You’re not going to be able to guard Brittney Griner by yourself for 40 minutes. In the first half, she guarded her with a lot of help from others. In the second half, she didn’t get help from anyone. Everything we did right in the first half, we didn’t do right in the first half.
“This is why you want to play these games at this time of year. If we didn’t play this game, we might have played someone we’d beat 100-35 and we would all think we’re really, really good. Playing a game like this with a month left before the NCAA tournament, I can’t think of a better thing to do. Absolutely it’s going to help. If I didn’t think it would help, I wouldn’t do it.”
UConn returns to Big East play Saturday when they host Seton Hall at Gampel Pavilion. It will be Senior Day and the Huskies will honor Caroline Doty, Heather Buck, and Kelly Faris.