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Huskies Pass Composure Test

Jeff Jacobs

11:41 PM EST, January 13, 2014

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WACO, Texas — It's not easy to stand tall in Texas when one of your guards is 5-8 and the other is 5-7.

It's not easy to stand tall in Texas when the other school has the best guard in the country and is hunting for an official's whistle every time she gets her mitts on the ball.

And it's especially easy to melt in Texas when Baylor had cut a double-digit lead to three points with five minutes left and a near capacity crowd was screaming for a 70th home victory in a row.

Confidence and composure are two of the most overused words in athletics and there's a reason for it. Confidence and composure are two of the most elusive qualities in athletics.

"Confidence? Composure? It's everything," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after his undefeated No. 1 team stared down its first serious challenge of the season with big plays when it mattered most in a 66-55 victory over Baylor Monday night. "And you're only as good as the guys with the ball in their hands all the time."

How's this? Sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson played 38 minutes without a single turnover. After committing four turnovers in the first half — and challenged by the coaches in the locker room at halftime — senior Bria Hartley responded with 12 of her 17 points and did not turn the ball over once over 20 minutes in the second half.

In the meantime, the two took turns carrying most of the burden of defending Odyssey Sims. Sims had 20 points, primarily because of 10-for-10 shooting from the foul line, but also finished a harrowing 4-for-25, turned the ball over seven times and didn't score a point the final 10:54. Sims was a bull in a Texas shop on this night.

"There are a lot of things that bother me about our guards," Auriemma said. "I don't think we do a great job of getting the ball into the post as we should. I think we spend way too much time dribbling sideways and not attacking the rim. But the one thing I love about our guards, especially these two, is they are not afraid of the big moments."

We saw lots of big moments last year, tense moments that resulted in some tough, tough losses to Notre Dame, but ultimately gave way to another national championship moment in New Orleans. This year had been devoid of dramatic games. A 17-point win at Maryland, with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck out injured, is what had passed as drama. Good grief, entering the game UConn's winning margin was 38.2 points and that included games against three of the top eight teams in the nation.

This night was much, much different. Baylor is good at basketball. Baylor is terrific at competing. And with 9,145 fans screaming and the music vibrating Ferrell Center, this night would be a daunting challenge.

A number of different players not named Mosqueda-Lewis made big plays. Breanna Stewart had 18 points and 11 rebounds. Stefanie Dolson made crucial plays in the final 10-2 burst that sealed the Huskies' 18th victory. Kiah Stokes had four blocks. No fewer than four starters nursed three fouls from the early part of the second half. Still, much of this came down to Jefferson and Hartley. So much of it came down to a wiry Texas kid, who isn't scared of anything, and a senior from Long Island, who responded when called out in front of her teammates.

"We said, 'Bria, this is not acceptable on any level,' " Auriemma said. "Bria came into this game a little bit lacking in confidence. She hasn't shot the ball really well. That showed in the first half. She didn't play with the confidence she normally does.

"We really got after her at halftime. And just like I knew she would, she played like Bria Hartley the All-American."

It has been discussed and written over the years. The blowouts may come repeatedly, but Auriemma runs demanding, commanding situational practices.

"Coach does it all the time, makes it impossible for us to win in practice," Jefferson said. "Once you go through that, you feel like you can do anything."

No turnovers to go with 13 points and five assists in her Texas homecoming? Confidence. Composure.

"It's incredible," said Jefferson, from Glenn Heights in the Dallas area. "It's a good feeling. Playing people like Odyssey Sims, you've got to stay composed. The whole game long I was just trying not to get over-worried. My confidence is building."

"Those two love the competitiveness of these games and this kind of building against this kind of team," Auriemma said. "Their personality types are well suited for this. I remember two years ago when we were up 11 here and we lost the game. Bria and Kaleena had meltdowns. We gave the game away. They pressed us and we just gave the game away.

"Tonight, we saw a completely different story."

Auriemma talked about how so many teams run a one-guard front. The last 25 years offenses have evolved into a one-point guard look.

"I like the fact we have two guys back there who share the ball-handling duties, share everything," Auriemma said. "It gives them confidence in each other. They have each other's back. I don't think you can win in college basketball without really, really, really confident guards."

Auriemma said he upset Jefferson once in the huddle by telling his guards that whoever Sims is guarding to pass it. Let the other guard run the play.

"We went down, got fouled and Moriah came over to me and said, 'I'm not throwing it. If she's guarding me, I'm taking it.' I said go ahead. She's just filled with confidence and I can't think of anything more important to a player's success than confidence. Right now she's got a ton of it."

Sims gets into the lane. She draws fouls. Auriemma said he used every imaginable defense. In the end, you just hope she misses.

"We forced Odyssey to take really hard shots," Hartley said. "And when it mattered, we came down, ran our offense and got the shots we wanted."

"We tried to get the ball out of her hands," Jefferson said. "We knew she'd come out and be really aggressive. So a lot of times Bria and me just tried to trap her and tried to get her to give it to somebody else."

Baylor, Auriemma said, has a tremendous will. Baylor also has a guard who can get into the lane and get to the foul line over and over. Could UConn make plays at the right time? The answer was yes.

"When the game got really close at the end, the two most vocal players in the huddle where Bria and Stefanie [Dolson]," Auriemma said. "They've been through a lot of these. They've won a bunch, lost a couple. It was surprising to see how animated Moriah was, which was kind of cool. That's not who she has been so far in her career at Connecticut. She kind of sits back and listens. But she has got it going right now."

"We really try to work off each other," Hartley said. "Moriah and I are always communicating. Having a really good chemistry helps as well. I love this girl."

Especially when both stood tall in Texas.