By MATT STYPULKOSKI, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant
12:05 AM EDT, April 7, 2014
NASHVILLE – Geno Auriemma has made it known throughout the years that the three-point shot is one of his favorite weapons. But for about the past week, it hasn't been a favorite of his team.
After a 4 of 15 performance behind the arc against Stanford Sunday night, UConn is shooting just 27.3 percent over their past three games – a big departure from its 36.5 percent in the regular season.
The rim-clanking began against BYU in the Sweet 16 April 5, when the Huskies hit just 6 of 20 shots from long range.
The slump has been particularly bad in the opening stages of games. The Huskies missed all of their first seven three-pointers Sunday before Bria Hartley finally got one to fall more than 15 minutes in. Against the Cougars, they missed all eight of their first-half attempts. A 39 percent shooting effort against Texas A&M fell in between, but even on that night UConn opened 0-for-4.
"At one point I think Stanford had all five of their players inside the lane just daring us to make a shot," Auriemma said. "It's contagious."
That's led to three straight games in which UConn trailed by at least six points after rarely seeing a deficit for the better part of 36 games.
Their recently crowned player of the year, Breanna Stewart, has been particularly snake-bitten. She's hit just 2 of her last 11 shots from behind the arc.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, one of the game's premier sharpshooters, has made 5 of 16 three-pointers over that same stretch.
And yet, UConn is in the national championship game.
The winning formula has simply adapted to make up for a missing element. Auriemma still wants his team to shoot the ball when it's there – he was pleading with his players to take open looks against the Cardinal – but isn't forcing the issue. Instead, the emphasis is on doing everything else the Huskies can to put points on the board, or at least prevent the other team from doing it.
The Huskies' defense has been suffocating when they have needed it to be. They've yet to allow an opponent more than 56 points in the NCAA Tournament. They limited Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford's All-American who averages 26.4 points, to just 15. They kept the Cardinal, among the nation's 10 most efficient offensive teams, to just 38.2 percent from the floor.
"I've always said if you play great defense you put yourself in position to win the game," Auriemma said. "And then however good your offense is, that will depend on what the spread is. If your offense is great that night, you can win by a lot. But if your offense isn't great that night, you can still win if you play great defense."
That stifling defense has allowed them a bit more leeway on the offensive side of the ball, where ramping up the aggressiveness has been the key. The guards have been driving and the posts have been backing it down. Offensive rebounding has been rampant, and second-chance points have come in droves. As a result, UConn has outscored its last three opponents 103-48 in the paint.
Going inside has also resulted in trips to the free-throw line. Stewart has been the biggest beneficiary at the line, scoring 40.4 percent of her points the last three games on free-throw attempts.
"When the shots aren't falling, you want to try to get an easy basket," Stewart said.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the Huskies can continue this way and win a national title without hitting shots. But great teams have a way of winning games even when they're not playing at their best. And by doing that the past few rounds, they've at least given themselves a chance.
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