The rest of the women’s basketball world did not just shut down to watch UConn’s 89-in-a-row-and-counting locomotive take a trip over Florida State. In fact, some of the other games – yes, there really were other games – Tuesday night involved teams that are, or should be, part of the championship conversation this season.
Does that mean any of them will beat UConn? We won’t go so far as to predict anything like that. One’s already had its chance, and may get another in the NCAA tournament. But, overall, Tuesday was an interesting night to examine what was going on beyond the bright spotlight shining on Hartford.
Baylor, ranked No. 2, took care of any upset thoughts by Syracuse (which had knocked off Ohio State previously) with a 77-43 win in the Bahamas. The Bears remain the closest challengers to UConn during the streak, after their one-point loss to the Huskies on Nov. 16.
On a night when UCLA’s men’s program of the 1970s was given so much attention by UConn’s streak extension, the current-day Bruins women’s team moved to 10-0 with a win over East Carolina in Hawaii.
West Virginia – could they pose a threat to UConn during Big East play? – stayed undefeated with an exercise in inevitability against overmatched North Carolina Central. DePaul, after its big upset against Stanford last week, was toppled at Arizona State.
But the supposed “game of the night” that wasn’t played in Connecticut is mostly what we’re going to look at here. It was in Durham, N.C., and No. 3 Duke defeated No. 4 Xavier 46-45.
Clank! Uggh! Yuck!
Yep, that’s two of your top-five teams in the country, folks, committing a crime against offense that could have made people run screaming out of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
As this is the fourth season of “McCallie ball” at Duke, one would assume that Blue Devil fans now have grown rather resigned to some relatively frequent low scores. Not that Xavier didn’t play its part in this clunker, too, because it did: committing 30 turnovers and shooting 8.3 percent (1 of 12) from 3-point range.
The teams combined to be 3 of 27 from behind the arc, a percentage that likely could have been duplicated if they’d played blindfolded. Overall, Duke shot a sizzling 26.8 percent from the field as the program continues in its quest to become the Rutgers of the South: a place where talented players go to focus on defense and forget how to make shots.
Actually, we do know Duke can score; the Blue Devils put up 93 points at Pittsburgh on Nov. 24, and 83 at home against Albany on Dec. 9. But in contests against the toughest foes, Duke is probably not going to win because of its offense.
Instead, the Blue Devils can beat other very good teams by turning the game into something that looks and feels like a stalemate until Duke – or more specifically, guard Jasmine Thomas _ can make a big play late.
That’s what happened Dec. 6 in a 61-58 victory over Texas A&M, when Thomas hit a jumper and two free throws in the final minute. And also against Xavier, when she made the go-ahead free throw with 2 ½ seconds left and then raced to the other end of the court to block a shot by Xavier’s Special Jennings, a spectacular play.
Duke has non-conference games remaining against Temple (Dec. 30), Kentucky (Jan. 4) and then the biggie, Connecticut (Jan. 31). The Blue Devils will try to impose their will against the Owls and Wildcats – and their ACC foes _ and that very often should produce a victory. But not necessarily against the Huskies.
UConn will not be forced into playing Duke’s style, and the Blue Devils show no signs of being able to make enough shots to keep pace with the Huskies. Should UConn’s streak still be going by the time of the Duke game, don’t look for the Blue Devils to have much chance at ending it, especially at Connecticut. (Although … does Jessica Foley have any eligibility left?)
What of Xavier? Tuesday was the first loss this season for the Musketeers, who’ve averaged just 61.8 points now over their last five games. With interior giants Amber Harris and Ta’Shia Phillips – who combined for 34 rebounds against Duke – Xavier is going to cause problems for every foe. But can the Musketeers be balanced enough offensively against the top teams?
Harris’ 22 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots vs. the Blue Devils made for an outstanding performance … except for her team-high eight turnovers.
The Musketeers still have another very high-profile trip to take in non-conference play, as they face Stanford on Dec. 28. Those teams, of course, met in the NCAA Elite Eight last season in a game that was utterly excruciating for Xavier, which missed open shots twice near the end only to see Stanford’s Jeanette Pohlen go coast-to-coast for the winning layup.
The Musketeers undoubtedly will be tired of talking about it before they’re even asked the first question, but it might also serve as motivation for them at Maples.
It pained Xavier on Tuesday to come so close against Duke to such a marquee win – on the road, no less _ as that’s something that could definitely help the Musketeers come NCAA tournament selection time. But the loss in Durham may make Xavier more dangerous for Stanford, which will have to focus fully on the Musketeers even though UConn’s Dec. 30 visit looms.