Published November 20, 2014
Twice in a six-game stretch, Oklahoma faced the nation's top-ranked team and wilted quickly after facing adversity.
When No. 2 Connecticut rolled into town and got out to a big lead, at least coach Sherri Coale saw some progress: Her team put up a fight.
Tiffany Hayes scored 23 points, Bria Hartley added 20 and the Huskies beat Oklahoma 73-55 on Monday night for their 12th straight victory.
The Huskies never trailed on their way to moving to 10-0 all-time in the series, which had become an annual tradition around Valentine's Day but is set to end after this meeting. Connecticut appeared ready to run away with it in the first 7 minutes but then had to withstand a series of rallies by Oklahoma (16-8).
"It's never OK — never OK — to lose on your home floor but I am proud of the growth that I saw," Coale said. "We found some passion and we found some fighters."
The Huskies (24-2) led 19-4 before two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant even made it to his seat near courtside, just over 7 minutes into the first half. Stefanie Dolson scored with her left hand under the basket soon after to make it a 17-point lead with 11:57 to go before halftime, and the Huskies seemed to be on their way to duplicating last season's 41-point blowout last season in Hartford.
Instead, Whitney Hand ignited the first in a series of comeback bids. Oklahoma got the lead down to five before halftime, then answered another Connecticut run in the second half by scoring seven straight points.
It wasn't until after a 10-0 run by the Huskies over the final 5 minutes that the game was out of reach.
"I'm really proud that we didn't give up and we fought and fought and fought and didn't stop fighting the whole game," Hand said. "I was really proud of everybody."
It wasn't that way when Baylor played at the Lloyd Noble Center on Jan. 26. The Bears also built a quick 17-point lead, then the Sooners made one charge to get back within six. When Baylor responded, Oklahoma wilted and ended up losing by 31 points.
The Sooners lost to the Bears by 37 in a rematch last week.
"I just really felt like there were times on the court when it was just fun and you didn't really look at the scoreboard," Hand said. "That was kind of our goal, and we got it to nine and I could have sworn we would have won but obviously we didn't."
Hand played 40 minutes and led Oklahoma with 18 points, but she was the only one of the Sooners who could score with regularity against the nation's top defense.
Aaryn Ellenberg, once the Sooners' most dangerous scorer, continued a prolonged slump by missing eight of her first nine shots. She has shot 16 for 75 (21 percent) over the last seven games — a stretch included the two Baylor games.
The Huskies are the only team with a better field-goal percentage defense than the Bears, allowing opponents to shoot only 29.6 percent and average 44.4 points.
Oklahoma exceeded both of those marks but still shot only 34.5 percent. The Sooners were 3 for 14 from 3-point range and are 24 for 105 (23 percent) over the same seven-game stretch.
"We've got to get that 3 element back in our offense. We have to," Coale said. "It's such a piece of our identity."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson contributed 10 points apiece in Connecticut's final nonconference test before a final four-game run that will decide the Big East title. It could come down to a Feb. 27 game against No. 4 Notre Dame in Hartford, Conn.
The teams are tied for the conference lead at 11-1 after the Irish were upset by West Virginia on Sunday.
"The No. 1 goal always, every year is to win the regular season championship. ... In order for us to do that, we have to win every game," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "So, we've kind of been in a playoff mode every game since we played at South Bend. So, that doesn't change anything for us."
Hand scored the first seven points in an 11-0 first-half run, and the Sooners quickly got themselves into the bonus by drawing three fouls against Mosqueda-Lewis in an 82-second span.
Jelena Cerina's layup in the final minute of the first half got Oklahoma within 33-28 before Connecticut scored the final four points before halftime.
The Huskies didn't let it stay close for long.
Hayes had two layups, stealing an outlet pass in between, to spark a string of eight straight points that restored Connecticut's lead to 45-30 in the first 3 minutes after halftime.
Mosqueda-Lewis turned away an Oklahoma comeback bid by hitting consecutive jumpers before Hayes' fastbreak layup pushed the lead to 51-35 with 13:10 remaining. The Sooners again got within single digits with a run of seven straight points finished by Hand's free throws with just under 6 minutes left, only to have the Huskies answer it a few moments later.
Dolson scored from the right block, Mosqueda-Lewis hit a 3-pointer and Hartley converted a fastbreak layup to draw a timeout from Coale. Many in the crowd of nearly 6,300 drawn for the annual "Pack the Place Pink" breast cancer awareness game headed out with 2:16 remaining and Connecticut leading 66-50.
"We kept our heads," Hayes said. "We'd just come down, just run our stuff, not let them make us go too fast and I think that's what helped us out."