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February 9, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Mountaineers mortals against a superpower

MORGANTOWN — In the end, West Virginia University had plenty enough to beat Connecticut Tuesday night at the Coliseum.

The problem was, the Huskies had Moore.

Maya Moore, that is.

In the end, greatness overcomes all, and Maya Moore is one great player.

The Mountaineers entered this matchup with the once-beaten (in three years) Huskies unafraid and with a plan, a good plan. They took the fast break when they had it and ran sets when they didn’t. They pounded the offensive glass, played strong defense.

But they were mere mortals up against a superpower, a basketball player like few before her and probably few who will come after her.

In truth, WVU played a marvelous first half and seemed to be poised to take a five-point lead into the locker room, a cushion that may have eaten away at the UConn players’ egos, made them question themselves and their ability to come from behind on a foreign court before a hostile crowd of 5,855.

Then, just before the buzzer, Maya Moore threw in a 3.

The five-point lead was two. Connecticut bounced off the court and into the locker room.

That shot did not win the game, but it won the psychological battle.

Moore would win the physical battle in the second half, and UConn escaped with a 57-51 victory.

Geno Auriemma is the Connecticut coach. He knows something about greatness. The victory in this game was the 758th of his career. He has seven national titles. He’s done it with great players, nine Olympians, six National Players of the Year … players named Lobo, Rizzotti, Wolters, Bird, Taurasi, Charles and, yes, Moore.

He knows that having a great player in a game like this is the same as having a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

“That’s what makes you a good team able to overcome poor offensive nights,” Auriemma said when asked to explain what it is like having that one player, that star, that superstar like Maya Moore. “When you have one go-to person who can make shots you don’t have long droughts where you’re not scoring.”

And UConn was not scoring. The Mountaineer defense was banging them around, forcing 17 turnovers, stealing the ball seven times, disrupting plays.

“We just couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end, and Maya just made great individual plays,” Auriemma said. “It had nothing to do with anything that was drawn up by the coaching staff. It was just brilliant plays by Maya to get you a bucket when you really need a bucket.”

Looking at it honestly, Auriemma knows that Maya Moore saved his team in this one.

“Without somebody like that a night like tonight probably turns into a loss rather than a win,” Auriemma admitted.

For the night she finished with 27 points, but it wasn’t so much how many as when she scored them.

Moore hit eight of the final 10 points for UConn.

“The difference, in my opinion, is when they struggled to score, they went to Maya Moore,” WVU coach Mike Carey said, quite poetically. “And she scored. We struggled to score; we struggled to score. It was a simple as that.”

Neither team was particularly good in this one. Auriemma called it “two really bad offensive performances.”

That turned it into a battle of attrition, with Moore the deciding factor, although Carey isn’t sure his team didn’t have something to do with her success.

“We say we don’t want Maya Moore to catch the ball. Well, she caught it five times in a row down the floor,” Carey noted.

And when she caught it, she did something with it, performing at the top of her game at the tightest moments.

Certainly a coach like Carey could appreciate what he had just witnessed, right?

“To be honest with you, I wish she didn’t play. I don’t appreciate her at all. But I respect her. She’s the best player in the country,” he said. “When they needed to score, they ran some good sets for her, and she finished. She’s a great player, and that’s what you want your great players to do.”

If Carey didn’t appreciate her, Auriemma did.

“As the season has gone on, the other players have contributed a little more, done more offensively,” Auriemma said. “But tonight it kind of all fell on Maya’s shoulders, and that’s why we are where we are … because she’s who she is.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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