Connecticut Women 77, Duke 65
Poised for a blowout win over top-ranked Duke, second-ranked Connecticut let its 28-point lead shrivel to six. But in the final minute the Huskies rediscovered the tough defense and offensive execution that had served them so well for most of the game and escaped with a 77-65 win at sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium.
For three-quarters of the game, the Blue Devils (20-1) played about as poorly as possible. U-Conn. (20-0), which extended its record winning streak to 59 games, led by 21 after a dominant first half and pushed the margin to 51-23 with 14 minutes remaining.
After shooting 22 percent in the opening half and missing 17 of its past 18 shots, Duke finally woke up. Junior guard Alana Beard scored 21 of her game-high 26 points in the second half, and the Blue Devils surged from behind, aided by a full-court press that shook the young Huskies.
Duke cut seven points off U-Conn.'s lead over the next five minutes, then exploded by scoring 29 points in the final 10 minutes. With 41/2 minutes left, Blue Devils forward Iciss Tillis swiped the ball and raced downcourt for a transition basket, slicing the margin to 62-53.
"The air was out of our sails. That was obvious," Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. "I looked at them in a timeout and said, 'We've lost our confidence. We've got to get it back.' They came at us hard and we backed up a little bit."
The defending national champion Huskies got their confidence back in a hurry, thanks to the only starter left over from last season's championship team. All-American guard Diana Taurasi (17 points) answered with jumpers on consecutive possessions to reestablish Connecticut's lead at 66-53 with 31/2 minutes left.
But the Blue Devils weren't finished yet. Beard hit a layup and two jumpers, freshman Lindsey Harding hit a short pull-up and freshman Jessica Foley bounced in a three-pointer. With 1:01 left, Duke was within 71-64. Harding's free throw 16 seconds later trimmed another point off the lead.
That was as close as Duke would get. The Huskies hit all six of their free throws in the final 44 seconds to preserve their lead.
"We knew going into the last few minutes it was going to come down to foul shots and taking care of the ball," Taurasi said. "That's what we did: We made foul shots and took care of the ball."
The Blue Devils were out of sync on offense from the outset tonight, committing four turnovers -- three by Beard -- in their first eight possessions.
Connecticut, meantime, had little trouble picking apart the Duke defense for inside baskets and open shots from the perimeter. Taurasi set the tone the first time U-Conn. set up on offense when she backed down Beard in the post and flipped up a short layin.
Connecticut had 16 assists on 18 field goals in the half and a 22-4 advantage in the lane. Duke had three assists and 10 turnovers.
U-Conn. led 26-20 before surging to take a 51-23 lead with 14:16 left.
"We were very much out of sorts for about three-quarters of the game and I give them credit for that," Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors said.
Notes: The game was preceded by a moment of silence in remembrance of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia. . . . Tonight was the first time in their 28-year history the Duke women drew more than 8,572 fans at home. Connecticut, which splits time between Gampel Pavilion and the Hartford Civic Center, averages 13,571 fans at home this season. . . . Duke's Beard, Wynter Whitley and Monique Currie (Bullis) and Connecticut's Taurasi, Ann Strother and Jessica Moore played together on the 2001 U.S. junior world championships team coached by Auriemma. . . . This was Duke's worst home loss since an 86-56 loss to Virginia on Feb. 19, 1997.