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UConn Downs Duke 83-61

UConn remains the elusive gold standard for women's basketball.

Connecticut Huskies center Stefanie Dolson (31) pulls down a rebound against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor .
Connecticut Huskies center Stefanie Dolson (31) pulls down a rebound against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor .
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

You take what the defense gives you.

But what if the defense doesn't give you anything, at least anything you want?

That was the dilemma the Duke women found themselves in Tuesday night against a Connecticut defense that forced them out of their comfort zone into what-was-she-thinking land.

The result was predictable, an 83-61 UConn win that solidified their status as the gold standard of women's college basketball and Duke's status as one of a number of teams trying to attain that level.

Make no mistake. Connecticut is that good. The defending NCAA champions came into Cameron with wins on their resume over Stanford, Maryland, Penn State and Ohio State by margins ranging from 17 to 21 points.

The question we all wanted answered was simple. Could Duke match their energy, focus and level of execution, not for brief spurts, but for 40 minutes?

The answer is no. Duke played well at times but Connecticut is a juggernaut that feasts on any lapses, no matter how brief.

It started well. Cameron was full and loud and ready for an upset, or at least a competitive game. Tricia Liston hit two field goals to give Duke its only lead at 4-3. It was still close at 12-11, less than five minutes into the game.

Then the wheels came off. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said "there was a stretch in the first half where we didn't do anything wrong for about ten minutes and got the lead up pretty good."

Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart-she was the 2013 Final Four Most Outstanding Player-sparked the breakaway. Stewart is 6-4 and can shoot. She hit some tough jumpers with hands in her face, scored inside and actually outscored Duke for the first 13 minutes, with 15 points, to Duke's 12.

At that point Connecticut led 28-12. The first half lead peaked at 38-15. That's a 26-4 deluge.

Duke had four travels during that span, all a result of indecision caused by having the wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. One ill-advised shot after another clanked off the rim. Connecticut's size smothered Elizabeth Williams inside.

"We showed little patience on offense," Joanne P. McCallie said. "Horrible shot selection. Chucking up shots and then not getting back on defense. We started the game the way we should have started the game, which was attacking and being patient on offense. We had some nice paint scores. Then we broke out of that and that's a very bad mistake to make against a very good transition team."

Chelsea Gray added defense to the list. "We didn't have the mental focus to get stops. Our defense is what fuels our offense and that wasn't there during that run."

Gray sparked a Duke run in the final five minutes of the opening half, driving for lay-ups on three consecutive possessions. Chloe Wells hit a 3-pointer right before intermission and Duke went into the locker room down 41-26, perhaps close enough to dream of a comeback.

Whatever momentum Duke had from that 11-3 closing run dissipated quickly when Connecticut built the lead back to 20, at 48-28, a response that took less than two minutes.

Duke had one more run in them. The Blue Devils finally got Stewart under control and converted some turnovers into fast-break baskets. An Elizabeth Williams lay-up made it 65-52, with eight minutes remaining.

Auriemma said that "every time Duke made a run, somebody made a big play, somebody made a big shot. That's what makes really good teams. Somebody steps up and makes a play when they have to make it."

The biggest play came at that 65-52 point. Kalena Mosqueda-Lewis missed a 3-pointer. But Connecticut center Stefanie Dolson outfought Duke for the rebound and found Mosqueda-Lewis for another 3.

She didn't miss this one.

In fact, she didn't miss many. One of the nation's top 3-point shooters, Mosqueda-Lewis had missed eight games with an elbow injury. She returned to practice last Friday and Auriemma said she had posted poor practices.

So, of course, she nailed 7-of-11 3-pointers, as Duke somehow managed to not find her time after time.

Haley Peters said Duke's defensive communication was poor. "We needed to know where she is every time she is on the floor. It's pretty simple. You just know where she is and get in her face. We didn't do that."

Mosqueda-Lewis' 3-pointer broke Duke's back. Three minutes later Dolson beat Duke down court in transition and converted a 3-point play that began sending people to the parking lot.

Several statistics stand out. UConn assisted on 25 of their 30 field goals. Duke only had 13 assists, as one-on-one moves replaced ball movement. Duke was outrebounded 39-31, shot 4-18 from beyond the arc and went to the foul line only five times.

The last statistic stood out for McCallie. "You've got to go to the rack and shoot more free throws. That's an embarrassment. How do you shoot five free throws in a game? We needed to be attacking and driving and creating and we didn't do that."

Duke doesn't have much time to lick its wounds. The Blue Devils host Albany Thursday before traveling to play a potent Kentucky team Sunday.

Peters says Duke needs to learn to play an entire game to beat elite teams. "We had lapses in our energy and our intensity throughout the game. We do that in other games but we can get away with that in those games. But we haven't pushed each other enough. When you do this against this team, you put yourself in a hole."

McCallie says it's an opportunity. "We've got to own up and grow and use this."