Saturday, March 16, 2013

Big East Women's Basketball

Two years ago on this blog, I wrote about a basketball game between the women of Villanova and Providence, in which the former came from behind at the end to win. The win featured sophomore Laura Sweeney, a 6' 2" forward who was emerging as the team's star. Last week, Georgetown ran into a Villanova squad that began by raining 3-pointers; I had never seen anything like it, not in college hoops or the pros. (By the end of the night, they had made 17 shots from beyond the arc.) Lauren Burford contributed mightily, as did Sweeney, who suffered a concussion. Unfortunately for Villanova, Sweeney would not be able to play in the next game against Syracuse, and they sorely missed her.

But I will remember the Villanove/Syracuse game more for Harry Perretta's inappropriate behavior. At one point early on, Burford was taken out of the game, and as she took her seat on the bench, Perretta said something to her so everyone could hear. (He shouts a lot, to anyone who will listen.) Burford was clearly unhappy with having been pulled from the game, and I was close enough to the bench to hear her make some passing comment to the coach as she took her seat.

Perretta then lit into her, at one point screaming at her, "YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH!" I thought I was watching a parent scold his daughter. Better for him to have sent her to the end of the bench and dealt with her later, concentrating on the game at hand. (Burford did not play again.) But Perretta wasn't done. A few moments later, the coach looked behind the bench towards some Big East officials -- no doubt sitting in mild horror at this point -- and continued his verbal barrage, suggesting that if Burford's parents were in the stands, he would send her into the bleachers to sit with them. Perretta had not just lost his temper (acceptable), he had crossed the line. If I were Villanova's athletic director, I would have sanctioned him. At every time out thereafter, Laura Sweeney was encouraging her teammates, cheering them on at every opportunity. But there was no mistaking the fear in the eyes of many of the young women.

It reminded me of when I assisted a team my daughter played on years ago, when she was in the fifth grade. The coach was shouting at the girls all the time, on the court, off the court. One time I asked Carolyn if the team paid much attention to what their coach was saying. To which she responded, "Dad, we can't even hear him." Perretta is always shouting, most of the time yelling HIGH-LOW! HIGH-LOW! but it wasn't making much of a difference. His players made a run at the end of the game against Syracuse, but it seemed to me that it was happening as much in spite of him, rather than because of him.

Every coach has his/her own style. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw clearly inspires her players, but they also have a free-wheeling quality about them which makes them even more dangerous. Without a real big woman in the post, Notre Dame still had an answer for everything that UConn threw their way in the Big East final. Kayla McBride came out shooting like she was in a game of H-O-R-S-E in the local playground. Both she and Notre Dame's star guard, Skylar Diggins, had a first step off the dribble that was so quick, UConn couldn't keep up, and they frequently had to foul just to prevent the shot.

But more than anything else, Notre Dame clearly got inside of the UConn women's heads. Every other game they've played this year, even against Stanford, they play like there's no tomorrow. But against Notre Dame a few weeks ago, and again in the Big East final, they played scared.

At the end of the final against Notre Dame, with 18.5 seconds to go, after having been outplayed most of the game, UConn had somehow worked their way to a tie. Time out. UConn ball. Worst they could do is not score, preserve the tie, and go into overtime. Best outcome would be a winning basket before the buzzer. Instead, the inbounds pass nearly went over Breanna Stewart's head. Somehow, the 6'4" freshman one-handed it, but you could already sense the trouble, as Notre Dame's defense had been tenacious all night. Best thing would have been another short time out, but instead the players were taking risks, dribbling along the baseline under the basket, tossing the ball towards corners, generally playing anything but UConn basketball. Then, as they had done several times earlier in the game, an ill-fated pass landed in Diggins's hands, who, double- and then triple-teamed, still found a way to get downcourt before she dished it off to a teammate for the winning basket. Notre Dame, like all great teams, found a way to win.

UConn is a very fine team, but they have yet to demonstrate an ability to win the close games. When they do this again, hopefully in the upcoming NCAA tournament, they will once again be the great team we know them to be.

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