BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — At 7 p.m. on Easter Sunday the women’s basketball team strode confidently onto the biggest stage to take on the biggest opponents: UConn, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and the No. 1 in the country. The size of the crowd didn’t fluster the Red’s play or decision-making, nor did the importance of the game. The size and speed of the Huskies did in the Red’s 89-47 loss in its first ever tournament appearance.
“[The players] were a little surprised with [UConn’s] speed,” said head coach Dayna Smith. “They talked about it in the timeout: ‘She’s just so quick.’ We knew their speed, but it doesn’t look that way on tape, it’s a greater speed when they’re out on the court. They needed to get over that initial disbelief. After that we calmed ourselves down a little bit. Not enough, but a little bit.”
The fact that the Red was able to calm down at all against the formidable Huskies during the 89-47 loss is a statement in and of itself. UConn was riding an 11-game winning streak and lost only twice this year, once to last year’s national runner-up Rutgers and once in an exhibition game to the U.S. National team.
“It was a difficult game for us with the speed, with the physical play,” Smith said. “It’s a little different level than we’re used to. But I’m extremely proud of our team, I’m extremely proud of the way we came out: not scared, unintimidated and playing with a little bit of aggressiveness.”[img_assist|nid=28970|title=I want to break free|desc=Junior Jeomi Maduka couldn’t find the hoop against UConn last night, scoring all of her seven points from the free throw line.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The Huskies fluctuated between No. 1 and No. 2 in the country all year long, and are led by head coach Geno Auriemma who boasts a .844 winning percentage in 23 years with the program. This was UConn’s 20th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. It is a program that owns five national titles.
“Any team that we were going to get is a good team,” said senior guard Gretchen Gregg. “We just had to approach it with confidence and believe that we could go out and compete and play hard and represent our team and our league well.”
At one point during the first half, the Red trailed 7-5, and Cornell’s defense seemed to have the formidable UConn offense stymied. The Red had held UConn to just 3-of-11 shooting over the first few minutes of the game, but UConn head coach Geno Auriemma called a time-out and got his players back on track.
“I take full blame because I told them I wanted them to play hard for the first four minutes,” said Smith, “and I didn’t address the next 16 minutes.”
The size difference was obvious during the introduction of starting lineups. The Huskies weren’t only taller, they were huskier. UConn used its size to bully the more petite Red players around throughout the contest.
The matchup was strewn with Cornell turnovers on traveling calls and errant passes, all due to a Red team that played with possibly too much urgency due to its constant deficit and plus-sized opponents.
The size advantage allowed for clear Husky dominance in the paint. During the first few minutes of the game, UConn missed several jumpers but collected the offensive rebounds with ease for the second-chance points. The second half was marked by a torrent of Huskies’ layups. The Red defense, aiming to keep the score as even as possible, swarmed to the player with the ball which freed up the post for any of UConn’s many players over 6-0.
One of the Red’s normal stalwart in the post, Ivy League Player of the Year junior Jeomi Maduka, had trouble finding success on layups throughout the entire game. Maduka went 0-for-7 on field goals and collected all seven of her points from the charity stripe. Sophomore guard Lauren Benson was held scoreless for the contest, but handed out five assists.
The Huskies’ defense was stifling all night long. It took Cornell 13 minutes to get into double digits, when junior Kayleen Fitzsimmons drew a foul from beyond the 3-point range and sophomore Virginia McMunigal hit the free throws. Cornell’s last points of the game came on a memorable 3-pointer from senior forward Meghan Hughes that sent the entire Red bench to its feet.
“Meghan’s been begging me for four years [to shoot 3-pointers] and I always tell her she has the red light,” Smith said. “She always said that her last game her senior year she was going to take a 3 and I said ‘OK, you can do it.’ I forgot that I said that, she did not forget. She lined up and took that shot and swished it, she looked at me and she actually stuck her tongue out at me. I guess maybe I should’ve let her shoot 3s her whole career because she’s 1-for-1 for her whole career.”
In Cornell’s press conference after the game, many of the questions focused on the future of the program and how far its come in the past few years.
“I think this was a great way to end the season,” said junior co-captain forward Moina Snyder, one of three Red players who finished their Cornell careers with the loss as her athletic eligibility is over after this year. “… It was a great way to make a statement for the future for the program.”
“I’m just so happy to have been a part of this team,” said senior co-captain Gretchen Gregg. “… I know that the juniors and sophomores and freshmen are going to push this program even further. … The program is in good hands and I’m looking forward to watching them the next couple of years.
After the players left the room, Smith reflected on the adversity of the past few years at the helm of Cornell women’s basketball, and the determination shown by her players.
“We had a goal, we had a plan in mind,” she said. “For it to come this season has been so rewarding. I can’t tell you how happy I am for them because it takes a lot to get beat up every day, to go out there and play positive basketball, play hard-nosed basketball and get told that down the line it’ll pay off, in two or three years it’ll pay off. … I’m just so happy that it came for this group.”