UConn comes to town

UNC women get shot at top spot

Staff WriterJanuary 19, 2009 

Tonight's game between No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 North Carolina features the two top scoring offenses in NCAA Division I women's basketball -- both averaging more than 85 points per game.

Quick, skilled and well-coached, these teams are expected to engage in up-tempo, transition-style basketball that many observers say is consistently lacking in the sport. With ESPN2 camera's zooming in at the Smith Center, these two undefeated teams will tip off at 7 p.m. in a highly-anticipated matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2, Big East vs. ACC and run vs. run.

It's the first time the top two teams have met in the Triangle since UNC faced Duke on Feb. 8, 2007.

"I love to play them because they play like we do," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "They get up and down the floor. They score points. They are fun to watch."

But are the Huskies fun to defend?

Not usually. Just on Saturday, the Huskies (17-0) dropped 107 points on conference foe Syracuse -- the third team this season they topped the 100-point mark against.

Three UConn players -- Renee Montgomery, Maya Moore and Tina Charles -- average double-figure scoring.

Moore, a sophomore who scored a career-high 40 points against Syracuse, leads the team with an average of 19.6 points per game and 9.1 rebounds. On Saturday she surpassed 1,000 points in just 55 games, smashing the school record of 63 games.

North Carolina, a team with its own three double-figure scorers, put up 103 points in a win over Virginia on Friday and is not without the ability to fill the basket.

Still, at some point during tonight's "Big Monday" game the Tar Heels (17-0) will want to stop their opponent's score-at-will tendencies.

Throughout the season, the Heels have used a full-court press, mostly to push teams into transition basketball, but also as a primary defensive source to force turnovers. They are yielding 62.5 points per game and forcing opponents to shoot 34 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range.

With UConn, a team that needs no prompt to run, the Heels will press at times, though they are most likely to drop back into their half-court defense where they've mixed man-to-man and a variety of zones. From there, they'll spring half-court traps to disrupt ball-handlers.

Hatchell, who has harped about her team's unwillingness to box out, said she has reached often into her "bag of tricks" to help the team adjust defensively this season, sometimes alternating between zone and man. Instead of anticipating, she said players are reacting.

Defending dribble penetration has been an issue, and the Heels are still a work in progress.

"We've put a whole lot out there early," Hatchell said. "None of it has been that good. ... Now we're trying to polish and make all of it better."

UNC junior forward Jessica Breland said more on-court communication has helped.

"We know what to do, we know where we need to be. We just have to get there," she said. "There's many times on the court that we all look at each other like the other person is suppose to do it."

With UConn's Montgomery -- a savvy senior guard whose team leads the nation in assists -- feeding Charles, the Heels may want to be clear about their interior defense. A 6-foot-4 junior center, Charles is averaging 16.9 points per game and is shooting 64 percent from the field.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said his team has seen a "little bit of everything" as teams try to slow down an offense averaging 87.5 points and a nation's best 53.9 percent from the field.

"We've played a schedule where we've had to make adjustments to different kinds of man-to-man and different zones and defenses geared to take out certain guys," he said. "One of things we've been able to do fairly well is adapt our [offense] to whatever is being taken away."

Montgomery and Moore have seen teams respond physically, while others have tried finesse.

UNC sophomore guard Italee Lucas, whose job will entail slowing down the Huskies guards, accepts the challenge.

"It's going to see where my defense is," she said. "Just have to stay low and stay in front of them and just use my quickness."

Rashanda McCants, a long-armed 6-1 forward, is often called upon to guard an opponent's best player late in games.

"I like it a lot, especially when it's like the end of the game and it's their star player and they've been scoring lots of points," she said.

As for the No. 1 and No. 2 teams clashing, McCants expressed a need for the Heels to play smart, aggressive, scrappy defense.

"Some one is going to lose," she said. "We're just going to work hard and make sure it's not us."

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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