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Hartford -It was the first time all season that the UConn women played against anybody (and before a crowd) with a pulse. Finally, an atmosphere that extended beyond a bunch of golf claps. Finally, an opponent with skilled basketball players who wouldn't approach the UConn game scared shotless.
And the Huskies responded in the only way this program really knows how. They dazzled No. 2 Stanford at times, winning 80-68, before an announced sellout of 16,294 at the XL Center. And while "sellout" flunked the eye test - with rows of empty seats at the top of several upper sections - the fans in attendance created a din befitting the quality of basketball they watched.
This wasn't all lollipops and rainbows, making the win all the more worthwhile. Stanford had a 40-38 lead at halftime. The Cardinal got every shot they wanted, when and where they wanted them. UConn's blinding run over the first 15 minutes of the second half, holding Stanford to 15 points, came with old fashioned earnestness.
Maya Moore, UConn's Everywoman, was asked about what she learned most about her team Wednesday night. Sometimes, the best questions are the simplest. Moore pondered the question for a moment.
"When we were really challenged," she said, "we bounced back."
Moore then alluded to how some teams could finger-point in such situations. Instead, the Huskies rallied and ran past Stanford with the verve of Usain Bolt.
The thought behind Moore's answer illustrated something fascinating about the way seasons evolve, seasons change from one year to the next and the way players need perpetual doses of confidence to succeed.
A cynic could have asked Moore how she could have possibly expected the Huskies to respond any other way. That's what they do here. They win. All the time. On the biggest stages. For the last 25 years. And so there would be some doubt about bouncing back with a roster full of players who won the national championship last season?
This just in: There might not have been overt doubts. But they were a whole lot happier after they proved to themselves that this team, the one without Renee Montgomery, could treat the No. 2 team in the country like a punching bag.
"When they were coming off the floor during one run and the place was really loud, I told the younger players that this was something they hadn't experienced," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I could see their eyes popping out. It was good to be back in that scenario."
Tina Charles, asked about the significance of the win, saluted the UConn backcourt. Charles said that everybody knows that neither Tiffany Hayes nor Caroline Doty are pure point guards, "but it's about getting the job done." Charles also alluded to how there has been some "criticism" about the quality of the Connecticut guards now that Montgomery is in the WNBA.
"Criticism," of course, is relative around the UConn women. There's really not much of it. Ever. What's to criticize? All they do is win, graduate everybody and write the textbook on how student-athletes should represent a university. Charles' answer, though, indicated that some of the "can you win without Renee?" talk has irritated them. And how it's sure more comforting now that the UConn guards "got the job done."
Hayes certainly did with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. Doty didn't do much. But if there's such a thing as guilt by association, this was success by association.
And a frame of reference for the Huskies to draw upon later in the season.
"They did win a national championship last year," Auriemma said of his team's pedigree. "If you're not any good and you play poorly, you can't come back. If you are good, it's just a matter of time."
It turns out that The Team That Wins All the Time, one with Moore and Charles and Hayes and Kalana Greene back from a championship season, honestly believed it had something to prove Wednesday night. And as the game progressed and the Huskies weren't pulverizing an opponent, they found some resolve and eventually blew the roof off the XL Center.
That's bad, bad, bad news for the rest of women's basketball. And pure joy for Connecticut. The Huskies went from thinking they're good to knowing it.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.