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WBB: Too much UConn

The Women's Bouncy Ball quest crash the party in Nashville ended on Monday night as the #1 UConn Huskies stayed unbeaten at the expense of our Ags.

The Ags fought hard but went down to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and #1 UConn
The Ags fought hard but went down to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and #1 UConn
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The lateness of the game and it being on a work night mean the GBH recap is kind of late. By the time you see this, the Tuesday E8 games will probably be in progress. Hope this has enough content to make the wait worthwhile.

First Half

A&M went with the more frequent starting lineup of Karla, Achiri, Williams, Walker and Jones. UConn played their usual starting lineup of Dolson, Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (aka KML) and Moriah Jefferson. The Ags had to start strong and have a good performance on the boards, and that's what they did. After Breanna Stewart scored first for UConn, A&M went on a 6-0 run to take the lead. The Ags were aided by offensive rebounds for second chances and limiting the Huskies to one shot per possession. But the play that cut the lead to 6-4 illustrated for me the kind of problem that UConn presented. After Walker hit a jumper to make it 6-2, UConn came down in their half court offense. The Aggie had Karla on Dolson at the high post, Ade guarding Stewart on the left wing, Walker on Hartley up top, Jones on MoJeff in the right corner, and Williams on KML. KML at the top of the key passed the ball to Hartley, who swung it to Stewart on the left side. At the same time, KML rubbed Williams off of a Dolson pick on the right side of the FT line and ran to the left block to take a pass from Stewart for a wide open layup.

The Ags fought to get the lead to 11-4 with 13:48 to go in the half. UConn answered to tie the game at 11 as Blair had Rachel Mitchell and Tavarsha Scott-Williams in to give Karla and Achiri some rest. Dolson blocked shots from both Rachel and Tavarsha and UConn turned both into transition points. Shortly after that, Stewart picked up two quick fouls and had to head to the bench.

UConn has a justifiably great reputation for playing defense without fouling. Although Pam Ward misstated it as no Huskies having fouled out, having only two foul out over the course of 38 games while leading the country in scoring defense means that you're doing things the right way. But UConn's reputation for not fouling also seems to give them the benefit of the doubt from the refs. I rewatched a sequence from when the game was tied at 11, which coincidentally was while Ward and Carolyn Peck were talking about how UConn doesn't foul. Jones missed a jumper in the lane and drops back into defense. Rachel got the rebound and missed. UConn runs down the court and at 11:25 Stewart runs over Jones (no call). KML misses a 3. Jones gets the rebound and Stewart, running by late to try for the rebound hits her on the head. Stewart gets called for the foul, but there it's no review for a flagrant. Stewart picked up her second pushing Karla from behind on a rebound. She stayed in for a bit but then went to the bench. At this point Aggie fans were hoping A&M could put together a run. But instead, UConn took over after Stewart went went out.

KML took the lead with a jumper at about 10:05. On the play, Dolson does the discount double check into Williams on a screen before breaking to the bucket and Peck explains on the replay that "that's not a moving screen because she's breaking to the basket". Sigh. Williams tied the game at 15 on a jumper with 9 minutes left in the first half. At 8:03, with UConn up 17-15, Jones misses a 3. The ball comes straight to Williams who grabs it. Jefferson coming from her right bumps into CWill … and it's an over the back on Williams.

The weird calls were exasperating, but they weren't the main problem. UConn was finding its offense and the Ags were struggling to create open shots against the increasingly packed in UConn D.

That's what killed us, that last 10 minutes of the first half. We were running offense 25 feet from the basket.

- Gary Blair

After the score was tied at 15, UConn went on a 15-2 run before Walker broke a 5 minute scoring drought to make the score 30-19 at 2:39 to go. Walker kept it from being a blowout but the Ags were down 11 at halftime 34-23. The half ended with UConn blocking a shot by Ade, making a total of 8 blocks for the half, 6 by Dolson.

KML had 12 points at half for UConn. Walker had 12 for the Ags. A&M had done a good job on the boards, especially in holding the Huskies to just one offensive rebound. But the Ags were still down double digits.

Second Half

A&M had CWal (I've been calling her CWalk all year, but apparently that's not what her teammates call her) bring the ball up to start the second half allowing Jones to spot up in the left corner. After missing a couple of 3s badly in the first half, JJ drained the trey to immediately cut the lead to single digits. The Ags fended off a UConn possession where the Huskies had four tries at the basket on 3 offensive rebounds. UConn crashing the offensive glass allowed Williams to grab the board. Jefferson came up to pressure in the back court and CWill hit JJ running up the right side with 3 defenders already back. But KML didn't close out quickly enough and Jones pulled up and hit another 3 to cut it to 5.When UConn got it back up to 9 it could have been a short-lived rally. But Walker got a friendly roll on a stop and pop in the lane and then Karla blocked a drive by Hartley layup. Gilbert turned it back over as Jefferson disrupted the outlet pass to Walker on the sideline but the Ags were bailed out when KML was called for an offensive foul for a shot in the back to Ade while she was trying to free up Stewart for a cut without the ball. Williams turned the corner down the left side of the lane on the next possession and used Karla as a screen on Dolson to get a layup that cut it back to 5. KML got an and one opportunity posting up Williams and drew CWill's third foul. But she couldn't hit the FT and Ade hit a short jumper to keep the lead at 5 with 15:44 to go. Like her other mid-range shot in the first half, this one wasn't pretty and needed to bounce around on the rim to go in. But it's a shot we need from Achiri going forward to help create space in the paint for whoever takes over the post from Karla.

After Hartley missed a layup, the Ags came down and set up their half court offense. After Walker was cut off on the left side, Jones took the ball at the top of the key and just took Jefferson to the block and scored over her as Dolson tried to come over to help. This wasn't a blinding drive, it was just JJ coming down and saying "you can't stop this one on one". Foul on Jefferson. Down 3 with JJ going to the line. Media timeout with 15:08 left.

JJ missed the free throw, but the Ags had several chances to cut it to 1 or tie the game. Walker got the rebound on the missed FT and was fouled by Hartley. But Jefferson intercepted Williams' attempt to pass back into the lane after driving the baseline. The Ags got a stop and Dolson fouled Karla on the rebound. Williams got open for a short baseline jumper that rattled out, but Walker deflected the ball as Dolson came down with the rebound. The ball went off of Dolson's head and out of bounds. The Ags set up and Walker saw an opening on the left side, but Dolson did a great job of getting around Karla to help to block her layup attempt but was called for a foul on body contact. The Ags kept possession and Williams was able to get an open look on a pull up in the lane… but missed. Karla did a great job of flashing into the paint to grab the rebound, but Dolson was able to tie her up and get the ball back for UConn on the held ball. That was 3 shots at cutting the lead on one possession, but UConn turned the Ags away.

The Huskies got an easy bunny for Jefferson on their next possession that I had to watch it several times to see how the D broke down. Note to self: should have DVR'd it; ESPN3 is nice but it's hard to go back and forth on replays. Jefferson gave the ball to Dolson on the right side outside the arc. Karla came out to cover leaving the paint open. Walker was on KML in the right corner. Williams on Hartley in the left corner. Ade was on Stokes at the top of the key. MoJeff ran past Stewart into the lane as Hartley broke out toward midcourt. JJ goes between Stokes and Ade, but it looks like she was expecting a switch as she stops and looks like she's picking up Stewart. Jefferson sort of sets a screen for Hartley's move and Williams goes with Hartley. Ade and JJ are both on Stokes a second too long as Jefferson releases. Nobody home in the lane. UConn by 5. The Ags came down and got a midrange shot from Karla that missed. Jefferson got the rebound and found Hartley open for a transition 3. Uconn by 8. Timeout A&M.

We competed, and I thought we really had a chance when we cut it to three. A great team just looks you in the face and says, 'Is that all you got?' They came down and got two easy baskets before I could call timeout.

- Gary Blair in the postgame

UConn opened the lead up after that. The Ags would get as close as 10 at 9:52 but couldn't get under double digits. UConn's D was just too good and the Ags ran out of gas.

Final score 69-54.

Final thoughts on the game and the season

The Ags played their hearts out again and gave UConn a tough out in the Elite 8. Walker, Williams, and Jones all finished in double digits for points, and none of it came easy. The bench only provided 8 points from Tori, who had another night of shooting better than 50% (4-7). Karla had a tough last game statistically, but added two more blocks to her all-time season record.

This wasn't the closest UConn has come to losing; Baylor was within 3 at the 3:51 timeout, while the Ags closest 2nd half approach was earlier. But that was in Waco vs a neutral court with the Final Four on the line. A&M's 7 point first half lead matched the most points the Huskies have trailed by all year - Louisville was up 7-0 on UConn in their second meeting at the Yum Center. The Ags outrebounded the Huskies 40-37, held them to 6 offensive boards for the game, and only turned it over 9 times while forcing 10. But UConn's top D was stellar for most of the game. A&M only shot 35.3% for the game and there were several scoring droughts that just made it hard to stay in striking distance. UConn wasn't able to do this with just man to man:

"They were just switching up. They would go to a 2-3, a 3-2, a man, a box-and-one, 2-3 pressure trap, and a full court pressure. They constantly threw different things at us to make us think and I feel like that's what really slowed us down a lot."
- Jordan Jones in a postgame interview with TexAgs Ronnie Woodard

The variety of defenses was interesting given both coaches pregame pressers where they talked about how they had to just do what they usually do. Geno joked that after that he expected Blair to play 2-3 zone for 40 minutes. Coach Blair did talk about how he intended to try zone vs UConn, but didn't find the right time in the game to try it. In some ways seeing UConn go into a zone on the second or third possession of the game was surprising; in other ways it was what worked for everyone else and showed that Geno is more concerned with what works than playing a specific way.

The complaints about the officiating above are not even close to be meant as a suggestion that calls affected the outcome. It is a complaint about how the coverage by ESPN walks the thin line between deserved praise of UConn and other top teams and "give me a break" fangirl coverage. The coverage of Odyssey Sims has been similar: she's a great player but is she really at the point where all the announcers should call her by her first name only? Stephanie Dolson had a truly great game, but I found it amusing that the footage used in the highlight about how she doesn't foul showed an uncalled foul on the body against Karla. Was it a good no-call? Probably. But should you use it to highlight how Dolson avoids fouls? Probably not.

In the aftermath, there is the usual second-guessing. On TexAgs radio, Gabe wondered what the team would have been like if Kelsey Bone had stayed another year. Others wonder if Peyton Little would have helped the team if she had gotten her 3-point shooting touch back. I find myself wondering what if Jessica Jackson would have chosen the Ags if she had known that Arkansas would replace coach who recruited her with Jimmy Dykes. None of those speculations are close enough to reality to be worth spending too much time on (especially since Jackson transferring within the conference isn't going to happen). The other kind of second-guessing will be about the season and the game, and here I have to start by saying that the Ags performance in the Elite 8, as well the season as a whole, are testaments to why Gary Blair is a Hall of Famer. As he's said on his radio show, coaching is a lot of things besides Xs and Os and recruiting. It's been a joy to watch this team grow, and only the most committed potbangers would knock the season the Ags just completed.

That said, my second-guessing for Coach relates to a comment he made about UConn's conditioning and Walker being out of gas at the end. UConn plays only 6 with significant minutes and in the regional their starters played a lot of minutes. Dolson, KML, Hartley and Jefferson played 37-39 minutes each, including the last minute sub to get the bench on the floor. Stewart was limited to 29 by foul trouble. For the Ags, 4 starters were at 30+ minutes vs UConn. Only Walker played 30+ vs DePaul. From what I've heard, there is nothing wrong with the work ethic, especially for Walker, and Jen Jones is considered to be an outstanding S&C coach. So it seems unlikely to me that pure conditioning is the whole story for why Walker ran out of gas in a couple of games this year, and why this problem comes up with our stars year after year (i.e. Danielle Gant vs Tennessee). Either our style of play is just less energy-efficient than UConn's, or there's something else going on. I lean toward the former; UConn's using zones from time to time may have been partly about energy conservation. Playing with the lead is also generally thought to be less energy intensive than clawing back from behind; it's a sports cliche that teams tend to have letdowns after they erase a big lead (I wonder if that is true or if its observer bias). No matter the explanation, I find myself wondering why a team with as much depth at guard as we have can't find a couple more minutes of rest for Walker. This was one of the games where I expected to see Chelsea Jennings a bit more than her last minute appearance. Curtyce Knox only had 4 minutes.

But the season has been great overall. The team that had a "Come to Jesus" meeting after losing to St. Johns in NYC gave us a lot of great performances. Some of the performances in losses (UConn, Tenn in the SEC tourney) were as good as or better than some of the performances in a few of the 27 wins. Some of the wins showed an abundance of the fightin' Texas Aggie WBB spirit. S. Carolina in OT and both LSU games come to mind. And we have memories like this:

A few more notes on the 2013-14 season:

  • Walker and Williams made the all-regional team.
  • Walker was named an AP All-America Honorable Mention. Her season total of 563 points puts her 6th on the Ags all-time single season list behind Danielle Adams (847, 2010-11), Jaynetta Saunders (611, 2000-01), Takia Starks (587, 2007-8), Kelsey Bone (582, 2012-13), and Peggy Pope (578, 1978-79).
  • Seniors Gilbert and Grant were 12-3 for their careers in the dance
  • Jordan only had 2 assists but they brought her single season TAMU record to 261 (if I'm counting right).

After the game JJ told Ronnie Woodard:

This year I was more of a streaky shooter. Once I hit one, I would continue to hit some, but if I was off, then I was missing. I feel like coming into next year if I get into the gym and work more on my shot and become a consistent shooter coming off screens and making more threes, then it can open up the floor for my teammates even more.

Works for me, JJ.