In 2014, the No. 1-ranked, undefeated Connecticut women's basketball hasn't let opponents hang around.
In 36 games leading up to Saturday's Sweet 16 contest against BYU in Lincoln, Neb., the Huskies had only allowed two opponents to be within single digits at halftime: No. 8/7 Maryland on Nov. 15 (UConn led 43-38 at the break) and No. 7 Baylor on Jan. 11 (the Huskies led 36-27)
So when the Cougars — and the tournament-record 9,585 fans in attendance plus the national television audience — looked up at the scoreboard as they went to the locker room, the numbers looked almost magical: UConn 30, BYU 29.
The Huskies size, depth and experience eventually wore down the Cougars in the second as UConn pulled away to get the 70-51 win and advance to the Elite Eight, but BYU had a lot to be proud of.
"We were excited (going into halftime) knowing we were playing great basketball with the best of the best," Cougar senior guard Kim Beeston said. "We knew that if things kept going the way we wanted to and if we kept executing our plays, it would be a close game down to the wire. I think we really showed what we can play like in the first half."
BYU head coach Jeff Judkins said he was thrilled with the way his team performed.
“I’m really proud of my team,” BYU head coach Jeff Judkins said. “I thought we really came out tonight with a lot of heart and energy. We played some of our best basketball. Sometimes in a game like this it comes down to being physical. We just didn’t play that sharp in the second half. I’m really proud of this team and its effort.”
Leading up to the David-vs.-Goliath matchup against the Huskies, the Cougars emphasized the importance of not letting the UConn mystique have an impact, of coming out confident and aggressive — and BYU did just that.
Led by the outside shooting of Beeston and junior forward Morgan Bailey on offense and an impressive collective effort to slow the Huskies on defense, the Cougars not only countered every early UConn move but built a 27-21 lead of their own. That's the second-largest deficit the Huskies faced all season (the largest being a 7-0 hole against Louisville on March 3).
"It knew it was going to be like this," UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. "I knew it was going to be difficult because they are not an easy matchup for anybody."
But the Huskies closed out the half with a 9-2 spurt to gain the slim edge heading into the break.
"More than anything, we were excited to be right there with a great team," Beeston said. "I think we were really positive heading into the second half."
BYU knew that UConn wouldn't be satisfied with its first-half showing and talked in the locker room about how the Cougars would need to raise their game as well.
"That’s what great teams do," BYU sophomore Lexi Eaton said. "They come out and they go on runs. Our goal was to try and not let them go on a long run, to punch back and keep punching. They are a great team and that’s something to learn from."
Eaton made the first basket of the second half, making it the first time the entire season that the Huskies had trailed after the break. The teams traded baskets back and forth with another Eaton jump shot putting the Cougars up 35-34.
UConn senior guard Bria Hartley hit a 3-pointer and although BYU would tie the game at 37-37, the Cougars would never lead again.
The remarkable fact, however, was that BYU was in front of the Huskies for a total of nine minutes and 35 seconds of game time. Prior to Saturday's contest, UConn had only trailed for less than 39 minutes of action (out of 1,440 minutes total) in the entire season.
That means BYU led the Huskies for nearly a fourth as long as the other 36 UConn opponents combined.
“I think there is a lot to be proud about,” Eaton said. “We hung with them for the majority of the game. We let it get away from us.”
But the Cougars feel like they could've done more.
"It was fun but there were parts that were frustrating because you feel like you should’ve played a little better and be more consistent," BYU senior center Jennifer Hamson said. "On the whole, it was great, as was the whole tournament."
The Huskies started scoring in bunches. First it was a 10-0 run to make it 47-37. Then, after the Cougars had gotten back to within six at 52-46, UConn scored 16 of the next 18 points to secure the win.
"Sometimes in a game like this it just comes down to being more physical and being a step quicker," Judkins said. "I think we just got a little tired in the second half. We weren’t quite as sharp. We had a shot. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for in a basketball game."
As the Huskies built the lead, BYU started pushing harder and harder in an attempt to rally, only to see it result in missed shots or turnovers.
When UConn missed, they frequently were able to use their length and mismatches to secure offensive boards, tallying 20 for the game that turned into 27 second-chance points.
"They were aggressive and they have strong guards who were getting the long rebounds," Hamson said. "It was a little toughness that we need to get better at."
The Cougars were led offensively by Beeston, who scored 16 points including four 3-pointers, and Bailey, who tallied 14 points and seven rebounds. Hamson chipped in nine points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
The Huskies were paced by 19 points and 13 boards from junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Even in defeat, BYU should still feel somewhat vindicated in that UConn's 19-point margin-of-victory is tied for its fourth smallest this season. The Huskies defeated No. 7 Baylor by 11 and No. 8/7 Maryland and No. 4 Louisville by 17 in its other (relatively) close results.
With the win, UConn continues on its quest to defend its 2013 national title. It will face No. 3-seed Texas A&M in the Lincoln Region final on Monday.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.