Commentary

Faris delivers 'one for the ages'

Huskies win with decisive second half, hand Duke its first loss of season

Originally Published: January 21, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

STORRS, Conn. -- During a break in the action midway through the second half of Monday's game between No. 3 Connecticut and No. 4 Duke, a sponsored announcement from a health-services provider helpfully, albeit slightly unsettlingly, informed fans that a fever of up to 102 degrees can be alleviated by placing an ice pack under one's arm.

Great, but what was Duke supposed to do about the heat Kelly Faris and Connecticut applied? Ice bags and chicken soup weren't going to cut it.

Leading by just two points at halftime and seemingly headed for another fight to the finish a little more than two weeks after losing a top-five showdown to bitter rival Notre Dame on the same court, Connecticut played a second half worthy of any of the championship teams that used to call Gampel Pavilion home.

In just 20 minutes of basketball, the Huskies turned the slimmest of leads into a 79-49 win. They drove an opponent into complete capitulation in a manner that shouldn't be possible in the first round of the NCAA tournament, let alone the Final Four stage to which both the Huskies and Blue Devils supposedly aspire.

[+] EnlargeChelsea Gray and Kelly Faris
AP Photo/Jessica HillKelly Faris was UConn's biggest difference-maker, finishing with 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two steals in an All-American-like effort.

After looking like it belonged on the court in the first half, Duke looked like it didn't want to be there in the second half.

Watching Faris and what the senior inspired around her, it was tough to blame the Blue Devils. It was the kind of night when not only did the senior from Indiana earn more than one standing ovation from the crowd of more than 9,000, but also what looked like an attempted chest bump from a particularly enthused Geno Auriemma at one point in the second half.

Faris finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. Duke point guard Chelsea Gray -- who spent a good portion of the night the subject of closer attention from Faris than President Obama received from his Secret Service detail during the day's inauguration events in Washington, D.C. -- finished with two points on six shots, four turnovers and a look of incalculable frustration.

Indeed, the numbers didn't tell the whole story. They never do with Faris.

"There's been some great players play in this building," Auriemma said. "There's been some legends play in this building wearing that Connecticut uniform. But I don't know that anybody ever represented that uniform and herself and her family the way that kid did tonight. I know there's a lot of players out there that are really good. I know there's a lot of All-Americans. I know there's a lot of great players. But man oh man, that was one for the ages right there."

If there was any question beforehand that a player averaging a modest 10.4 points per game deserves All-American honors -- and we're talking about a place in the conversation for the first team -- it should end now. There is no shortage of tangible when it comes to Faris. She leads the team in assists. She ranks second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. She has more than twice as many steals as any other player on her team. She can guard Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas as comfortably and stiflingly as she can Duke point guard Gray, as their turnovers and field goal percentages against her attest. So when people talk about intangibles, it's not in place of the tangibles, it's in addition.

I know there's a lot of All-Americans. I know there's a lot of great players. But man oh man, that was one for the ages right there.

-- UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Kelly Faris' performance Monday

"I think on the stat sheet you can't see the total exhaustion that she plays herself into. You can't see how much of herself she leaves on the floor," Auriemma said. "If you saw the game and you saw how she did it and the way it all transpired, then you know there's a lot more to Kelly than just the numbers in the box score."

They needed her on this night. More specifically, Auriemma needed her. After the game, he talked about the frustration of recent weeks, of not finding the right buttons to push, the right words to say or the right lessons to teach to get the most out of this team. That came to a head at halftime with a message that was one part tactics and one part angry challenge -- and he held his thumb and forefinger together to indicate what part the former represented.

Connecticut played defense in the first half, Faris shutting down Gray and Stefanie Dolson doing her part against Elizabeth Williams. But the Huskies also committed 12 turnovers. They were sloppy and inefficient, partly as a result of a good opponent playing good defense. And partly not. They were, as they have been to the point of driving their coach to distraction, half a beat off the rhythm they needed.

Auriemma challenged them, and Faris led them. She scored the first basket of the second half on a well-executed cut. She got a defensive rebound, ran to the other end, got an offensive rebound and scored. She found Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis for back-to-back baskets to extend the lead to 10 points. After Williams swatted a Dolson attempt out of bounds, Faris took the inbounds and drove right at Williams, absorbing contact and finishing. She fought off Alexis Jones for a rebound and drew the freshman's fourth foul in the process, sending Duke's best offensive option all night to the bench.

And as much as she put on a show, it wasn't a one-woman show. Faris isn't Maya Moore or Diana Taurasi. She isn't going to win a lot of games by herself. But her teammates matched her energy in the second half, Breanna Stewart holding down the post on defense with Dolson in foul trouble, Caroline Doty playing perhaps her best game of the season and Mosqueda-Lewis playing both ends en route to a game-high 21 points.

[+] EnlargeAlexis Jones
Richard Messina/Hartford Courant/Getty ImagesAlexis Jones (14 points) was Duke's best offensive force -- until Kelly Faris drew the freshman's fourth foul.

It took Connecticut eight and a half minutes to build a 19-point lead.

"Initially in the second half, I don't know, we slept walk through that episode, and they simply made layups," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "When you allow that to occur, anything is possible. They're a great offensive team. They were very steady with their shooting across the board. Obviously, we weren't. But that's what I think fueled their development, and they played very well.

"And we didn't respond."

Duke beat California early in the season, in addition to a good Michigan team, but it looked like a team that thought the first half was as intense as basketball got. It wasn't.

"I think that we're the first tough team they've had to play all season," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "And it's hard to come in here and play at Gampel, in front of our fans. Just with the energy we had, it was kind of hard. I don't know what I would have done if I was them."

McCallie acknowledged more games of the sort Connecticut, Notre Dame, Baylor, Stanford and Tennessee regularly build their nonconference schedules around would have been beneficial, but suggested they weren't available.

"It's not as easy as you think." McCallie said. "Some teams won't play you, refuse to play you. And some teams say come play us, but we're not going to return. So it's not as easy as you think, unless we could get some help, maybe, from ESPN.

"I mean, Connecticut plays everybody. That's what they do. But that's not everybody."

And the Huskies win most of them because of players such as Faris, who exited the game with 90 seconds left -- after diving on the floor to force a jump ball.

"It's so much more fun when we play like that the second half," Faris said. "We all felt it, everybody felt it, I think everybody in the gym felt it. It was just something different, something clicked and we had fun playing ball."

On a cold winter night in Connecticut, it certainly warmed up the place.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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