Even the strongest team constantly stands on a fragile fault line. All that separate it from falling into a sink hole are ill-timed acts of nature and an inspired opponent.
The No. 3 UConn women found that out again on Saturday when one foot suddenly slipped into the abyss.
Without an ailing Stefanie Dolson and sophomore guard Brianna Banks, who missed the final 30 minutes with a sprained right knee, the Huskies were pushed from tip to buzzer by unranked St. John's.
They weren't shooting well or defending a fleet of perimeter scorers that pretty much answered every clang with a swish. It was a bad combination that lasted late into the game.
"They did a great job getting to the basket on us," Geno Auriemma said. "We probably gave up more layups today than at any time of the year."
That is, until Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis rescued her team. Making moves from the low post, a last-ditch effort to get her more shots, she scored seven straight points for the Huskies over a 2:24 span late in the game to get the Huskies to a 71-65 win at the Carnesecca Arena.
"Coach thought I wasn't getting enough shots and he mentioned it to the team," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "I just tried to execute the plays he designed."
Mosqueda-Lewis led UConn (20-1, 7-1) with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but took only 11 shots, just four in the second half. Kelly Faris added 17 and five rebounds.
"We didn't do anything better than St. John's but play a good stretch of defense and get ourselves to the free throw line more than they did [25-9]," Auriemma said.
Shenneika Smith led the Red Storm (10-10, 4-4) with 21 points. Aliyyah Handford added 17 and Briana Brown scored 16.
With UConn trailing 53-52, Faris hit a three and followed up Mosqueda-Lewis' missed three to give the Huskies a 57-53 lead with 5:25 remaining.
Smith scored the next two hoops to tie it at 57 with 4:34 to play.
"It's good to know that we have the capability to do what we did in the final minutes," Faris said. "But we look at the whole [game] and it was a disappointing win. We're not about winning. We're about how we win."
Dolson was replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Kiah Stokes and missed the first game of her career.
"It was a surprise, since it came at the last minute, but it didn't change our mentality," St. John's coach Joe Tartamella said. "Our game plan didn't change what we wanted to do."
Stokes said she found out she would play just before the game.
"I was nervous at the start, but when I came out for the second half I tried to make an impact," Stokes said.
Stokes had seven points, four rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes.
It was the start of a day of experimentation for Auriemma. He mixed and matched lineups, small, medium and large, trying to find one that clicked. But without Dolson, things weren't working well.
"Just goes to show you what she means to our offense," Auriemma said. "We are not the same team when we play without her.
St. John's was in it from the start, jumping to leads of 3-0, 5-2 and 12-7. Ironically, the Huskies did not take the lead for the first time until Banks' fastbreak basket made it 18-17 with 11:01 to play in the half.
The Huskies seemed to take control, outscoring the Red Storm 14-7 over the next six minutes to take a 32-24 lead. But by that time, Banks was out of the game after just one minute after hurting herself while being called for a charge with 10:01 to go in the half.
Handford, a freshman guard, brought the Red Storm back with six points and then Smith's hoop with 2:09 to play in the half re-established the Red Storm lead at 35-34. Mosqueda-Lewis' free throw tied it at the half.
The Huskies, usually an excellent three-point shooting team, were a mess from the line, missing 17 of its 23 attempts. Bria Hartley was 0-for-7. And without Dolson to worry about, the Red Storm defense simply ratcheted up its perimeter pressure.
UConn even enjoyed a massive advantage at the free throw line, something Auriemma often complains it doesn't get. The Huskies were 19-for-25 from the line, while St. John's was just 6-for-9.
Something just wasn't right. And it wasn't right for a long time.
St. John's defeated Providence last week to end a three-game losing streak. And they did it without Smith, benched for the game because of a violation of program rules.
Smith was back on Saturday. And that almost was enough to beat a UConn team that now has won eight straight.Copyright © 2015, CT Now