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U.S. National Team downs UConn on memorable night

POSTED January 28, 2020
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

                HARTFORD – There were so many different story lines evolving in the XL Center Monday you can be forgiven if you had trouble keeping up. There was so much to make you smile and tickle your nostalgia bone. There was enough to force the eyes tear up the heart to break.  And they played some basketball too.

                It was one part dizzying,  one part mesmerizing and all parts entertaining for the 13,919 who created a lively atmosphere as the U.S. National Team pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 79-64 victory over No. 3 UConn in an exhibition contest.

                Before the ball was ever bounced, however, there were powerful moments that registered at the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum.  The death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna (Gigi) Sunday in a helicopter crash was still fresh and raw. Before the game a moment of silence produced a deafening quiet in the XL Center.

                Once the game started, Team USA took an 8-second backcourt call and UConn followed with a 24-second shot clock violation, to honor Kobe’s two numbers. Bryant was close to the women’s game and many of the players had worked with him and knew him including former Huskie Katie Lou Samuelson.

                Many of the post-game questions to the players and coaches were about Kobe whose daughter loved UConn and his relationship to the program and women’s basketball overall.

                But there was a lot of feel good to the night too. The history of the greatest program in college women’s basketball was on display front and center. The GOAT was in the house. Take your pick – Diana Taurasi (did not play), Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore were all there. Brilliant Sue Bird was there.

                It was also a night where the national champion teams of 2009 and 2010 with folks like Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles were honored.

                On the Team USA sideline were a few memorable faces – Bird, Taurasi, Charles, Stewart and Katie Lou.  Oh and if you looked around you would have found Rebecca Lobo and Kara Wolters. The stars were out and the crowd responded with lusty cheers.

                And yeah, they did play some basketball. The Huskies acquitted themselves well before finally being overpowered in the fourth quarter. Leading, 56-54, one minute into the fourth quarter, the Huskies would score just one basket and three points over the next 7:40, while Team USA was reeling off 18 points for an insurmountable, 72-58, lead with 1:51 left.     

                Kelsey Plum picked Team USA up with a pair of three-pointers and a fast break layup for a 62-56 lead. Nimadi Oqwiumike (14 points) added a layup for an eight-point lead. After a Megan Walker free throw, Kayla McBride found the lane open for a layup and a 66-57 lead. UConn never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.

                The Huskies shot 4-of-11 in the final period to go with their long scoring drought.

                ‘We just wore out. They’re just too big and too talented and too smart,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

                “But the ending did not deter from a spirited effort from the Huskies. After starting the game like they would get run out of the XL Center, forcing Auriemma to call a timeout just three minutes in and the score 7-0, the Huskies got over their nervousness.

                “I thought we were going to get shutout,’ said Auriemma. “I was really worried that we wouldn’t score. Now I know what it felt like when I had certain teams and we played against other teams and switch every screen so you couldn’t run your offense. You couldn’t get a pass completed, you couldn’t get a shot. Tonight we were on the other end of that.”

                But UConn regrouped behind Megan Walker who finished the night with 22 points and seven rebounds. With UConn trailing, 27-17, midway through the second quarter, Anna Makurat nailed a three-pointer and Walker followed with another trey to cut the deficit to 27-23. Walker wound up one more time from long range to make it a one-point game and by half the Huskies had tied the game, 31-31.

                Walker added nine more points in the third quarter as the Huskies fell behind, 40-33 and again rallied to take a 5o-47 lead before falling behind, 52-51, entering the fourth quarter.

                “We just got off to a rough start, we have to do better with that,” said Walker. “If we play like we did in the second quarter it might have been a different outcome. “

                A few old Huskies were impressed with the new Huskies.

                “They are a typical UConn team, they play hard, you know, cut tremendously hard, there’s no wasted possessions,” said Bird. “I think you saw glimpses of what they can be. There not as deep as some UConn teams, maybe they are not as talented as typical UConn teams. But, you saw glimpses and if they can find a way to make those glimpses longer throughout a game instead of just five minute glimpses. They you have a team that will do well in the NCAA Tournament.”

                “I thought the way that (UConn) handled the punches was impressive,” said Stewart. When you are up in the first quarter like that a lot of teams are done. But, they fought back and I thought that was good to see.”

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