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Jefferson does it with defense

POSTED December 06, 2015
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

            STORRS – It’s not often UConn gets treated like some kind of Division III scrimmage opponent. Especially at home, in front of a ramped out sell-out crowd with the No. 1 ranking and 42-game win streak part of the energetic atmosphere.

            Maybe you wilt a little bit, maybe you take a step back. Maybe you get lost in where you are. And many have. And then maybe you say who the hell cares about all that and go out and have yourself a day.

            Notre Dame’s gritty New Jersey freshman Marina Mabrey didn’t buy into all the ‘I should be impressed stuff’ Saturday afternoon with ESPN joining the festivities. In fairness, she sports the Notre Dame name on her jersey and the Irish have been one of the few teams that always stand up to UConn.

            Mabrey was just the latest following in the footsteps of Skylar Diggins, going back a little further to Ruth Riley and others who have made UConn step up. But man was Mabrey good.

            For a half.

            She reduced the UConn defense to a rumor to the point Geno Auriemma “thought she was going to get 50.” Inside, outside, flashes to the basket, layups, 15-footers. She shot 9-of-11 that included a trio of three-pointers. Mabrey, torched the Huskies for 21 first half points, two less than half her team’s total in an entertaining 45-43 half that ended with UConn on top with a big barely. Not bad for a kid averaging 11.7 points a game.

            Big arena, big atmosphere and very big-time performance on a day when the Irish were reeling somewhat from the injury bug with leading scorer Brianna Turner and forward Taya Reimer out of action.

            “I think our team was looking for somebody to step up and I was able to do that,” said Mabrey.

            “We knew she could be that feisty person with a little bit of swagger,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “We haven’t really had that since Skylar (Diggins). It was just what we were looking for.”  

            UConn tends to take these things a bit personal. Loads of players over the years have come in the Huskies’ house with big numbers and left with big frustration. So before Mabrey outdistanced the all-time record of 38 points set against the Huskies by Holy Cross’ Amy O’Brien in 1997, Moriah Jefferson decided to get involved.

            She’s the lightning bug, stutter-stepper, who looks like she is shot out of a cannon sometimes and gets to the hoop as well as anybody in the country. The 3-pointer has become a valued part of the resume.

            But this was the defensive Jefferson. The soft-spoken, big smile wisp who will pick your pocket and make you feel good about it. Sixty-seven inches, give or take an inch and 125 pounds of deceptive and deadly. There’s a touch of alley-cat here.

            While Auriemma and brain trust was trying to figure out what to do with Mabrey, Jefferson made their job easier.

            “The thing about (Moriah) is that she wants to,” said Auriemma. “We were trying to figure out how we were going to change and get somebody bigger (on Mabrey), she came over and said, ‘no, I got her.’ “

            She got her.

            Mabrey finished with 23 points, two points in the final 20 minutes on 1-of-2 shooting. At one point, the impact of having Jefferson being close enough to read the washing instructions on the tag inside her shirt, Mabrey got whistled for a couple of offensive push-offs. There were three turnovers. This day had been reduced from a show of shows to a preview of promise.

            “My goal was not to let her touch the ball, she had 21 in the first half and that’s unacceptable,” said Jefferson. “I wanted to come out and face guard her and try to make her life really hard for her and not give her any open shots.”

            Jefferson could see the freshman coming out in Mabrey with the offensive fouls.

            “The frustration is going to come when you start getting in somebody’s face and they’re not getting the ball anymore,” said Jefferson. “(Mabrey) obviously seemed to be frustrated and then you head’s out of it. You are worried about me being on you and hitting me off of you when you get the ball.”

            Jefferson was giving away at least four inches and more than few pounds to the solid Mabrey, not an unusual case with many of her defensive assignments. It didn’t make much of a difference.

            “Whatever Moriah gives up size-wise and sometimes it is significant, I think she makes up for it quickness-wise and with toughness a little bit,” said Auriemma. “And she’s very disruptive on the defensive end.”

            Mabrey gave notice she is just in the beginning of being a four-year handful for UConn and all other Irish opponents. But amidst the brilliance here, there was a learning curve.

            “(Jefferson) is a great defender, I’ve never had that before in college,” said Mabrey. “This is something I’ll learn from.”

             There was a lot to take in this one. Morgan Tuck was brilliant for the Huskies with 21 points and eight assists. Enough to elicit this from McGraw – “I think she was the X-Factor today.”

Brianna Stewart was, well, Stewie. Awesomely diverse with 28 points and 10 rebounds

and an absolutely spectacular tip-in as she stormed down the middle in the first half and went over two Notre Dame players at rim level. All of which brought the crowd into standing ovation mode.

UConn can score. The defense needs work, particularly in the first half. The Huskies have

give up 16 three-pointers in the first half of the last two games and an average of 42 points.

It is early yet, but work to be done. But in big-stage game, the smallest player on the floor stood out among the biggest. Not the first time, but this time it was with big-time defense.  

            Not surprising. But for Marina Mabrey very irritating. Marina, just for the record, Jefferson has ticked off a lot of people along the way.

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