HARTFORD -- The UConn women's basketball team had won its first six games by an average of 48.7 points this season. The opposition barely had time to break a sweat before the second-ranked Huskies were in complete control.
There was little question that Monday night was going to be different. Forget the fact that No. 9 Maryland has lost three players to torn anterior cruciate ligaments this season. The Terrapins were not coming to the XL Center for the Jimmy V Classic looking for sympathy.
Maryland was a physical team. Led by 6-foot-3 senior forward Tianna Hawkins and 6-2 junior All-American Alyssa Thomas, this is a team that prides itself on rebounding and bodying up at the defensive end.
When she was asked if the Huskies believed they had the necessary toughness to win a game like this, UConn center Stefanie Dolson hesitated a bit. UConn had struggled in this area last season. But in 40 minutes against the Terrapins, UConn proved before a crowd of 11,645 and a national television audience it has the mettle to withstand a constant beating at both ends of the floor.
"I think there's always questions with that with any team," Dolson said after UConn's 63-48 victory. "It was a good test for us to see how tough we could be. It was a good game for us to learn how tough we have to be. We have to know that we can push and hit them back, and we did that."
Associate head coach Chris Dailey has been urging the Huskies (7-0) to stop being such "girly girls." They are well on their way to dispelling that notion.
Freshman Breanna Stewart stood in the media room with a nasty cut on the inside of her left eye courtesy of Hawkins. Dolson, who frequently found herself involved in scrums in the lane with Hawkins and picking herself off the floor after collisions, was hit with a double foul along with Alicia DeVaughn with 8:05 remaining as the two were jockeying for position in the lane.
Play was physical from the start, and it never did subside until the final buzzer sounded.
"The coaching staff, we know who's going to do what when the punches start flying," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "And we want the other guys to step up and be like that. But we've got it on film now and they can see it for themselves. This kind of game came at a great time for us."
The Huskies needed every ounce of their toughness against Maryland (4-2). They shot a season-low 38.3 percent from the field, making 5-of-15 3-pointers. And they equaled their season-high by committing 17 turnovers.
Even though UConn was outrebounded 39-35, the margin didn't give Maryland a big advantage.
UConn suffered through a scoreless stretch of 5:33 in the first half before answering with a 16-5 run to open a 33-20 lead at halftime. In the second half, the Huskies watched Maryland close to within 40-33 with 12:59 left.
This was the point last year when oftentimes they did not know how to respond. Monday, they summoned the proper response as Brianna Banks answered with a 3-pointer and Bria Hartley parlayed a steal and an assist by Kelly Faris into a three-point play to key a 13-4 run.
"I think we surprised ourselves," Faris said. "We would've liked to have handled it a little better offensively. But I think we're kind of pleased with how we handled ourselves defensively.
"Last year, it was a different story. That was our big thing. People punched us and we kind of backed off. So when we needed a shot, we got a shot."
Dolson finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 35 minutes. Stewart, who initially did not respond well to the physical play, had 13 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes. Banks had 11 points off the bench. And Faris, who is the personification of toughness, had eight points, seven rebounds, seven assists and a career-high eight steals in 34 minutes.
The Huskies are sure to have more bullish games like this as the season progresses. Monday against Maryland, they proved they will be ready.
"I think we took steps forward at least," Dolson said. "I think we did an overall pretty good job of just kind of keeping our cool with how aggressive they were with us on the boards and just on defense in general. I think we could do better, but it was good game for us. A good start."
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