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UConn women believe they're ready to take final championship step

Updated 12:37 am, Sunday, November 11, 2012

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  • Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, second from right, is congratulated by teammates Moriah Jefferson, left, Brianna Banks, second from left, and Bria Hartley, right, after she won a 3-point competition among two men's players and two women's, at the NCAA college basketball teams' First Night event in Storrs, Conn., Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Photo: Jessica Hill, Associated Press / FR125654 AP

    Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, second from right, is congratulated by teammates Moriah Jefferson, left, Brianna Banks, second from left, and Bria Hartley, right, after she won a 3-point competition among two men's players and two women's, at the NCAA college basketball teams' First Night event in Storrs, Conn., Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Photo: Jessica Hill, Associated Press

 

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STORRS -- Kelly Faris could not bring herself to watch much of the NCAA women's basketball tournament final between Baylor and Notre Dame last April. The competitor in her could not sit there and look on as two other teams vied for a national championship.

The Huskies stood one defensive rebound away from advancing to the championship game last season in Denver. Instead, they were stung by a second straight season-ending loss to eventual runner-up Notre Dame in the identical spot in the tournament.

Faris, now a senior leader for No. 2 UConn, was certain the talent was in place to claim an NCAA record-tying eighth national championship. However, when the team's mental approach was not a match for its talent, it proved to be a recipe for disappointment.

"We couldn't finish off big games," Faris said. "And I don't think it had to do with talent or effort. It was more of a mentality of keeping our heads in the game, stay with the game and stay smart. We didn't have that last year and now we have to be more mature about our approach and how we finish."

The Huskies finished 33-5 last season, losing as many as five games for the first time since 2005-06.

Sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis used the term "scatter-brained" to describe the team in games. There were players who did not know their precise roles, or if they did, they were inconsistent in fulfilling their role. Leadership was lacking at times, too.

"We didn't really have a direction last year," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "We knew that, `Yeah, OK, we want to win.' But we didn't really exactly have, `This is what we need to do to win. This is what you as a teammate need to do to win.' We weren't bringing together all of our weapons at one time."

The returning members of the Huskies have used the shortcomings that denied them a chance for glory last season as a learning experience. They have vowed not to make the same mistakes this season. And heading into today's season opener against the College of Charleston at Gampel Pavilion (1:30 p.m., SNY), there is a great deal of excitement surrounding this team.

How much excitement? Even UConn coach Geno Auriemma, usually guarded when it comes to publicly discussing the potential of his team during the preseason, has outwardly gushed about the construction and the make-up of this group.

"When everybody really feels connected, that there's a shared sacrifice, to use a popular term ... they feel that," Auriemma said. "They've expressed that a lot to me. So I've got to believe that there's something going on this year that wasn't as good as it could've been last year. And they feel excited about it."

Junior All-American Bria Hartley, who will miss at least the first two games with an injured left ankle; junior Stefanie Dolson, who finds herself in the best shape of her career; Mosqueda-Lewis, a top scorer who has vowed to become a more well-rounded player; and seniors Faris and Caroline Doty are the key returning players.

But the addition of freshmen Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck might just bring the final pieces of a championship puzzle.

Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck have not played like freshmen in practice or in the two exhibition games. Jefferson is an electric, true pass-first point guard. Stewart was the consensus national high school player of year last season, and at 6-foot-4 has the ability to handle the ball and play on the wing and on the block. Tuck, 6-2, also brings the versatility of playing on the wing and on the block.

"The good part with those three is that they are really, really, really confident basketball players," Auriemma said. "And they're here at the right time. They're here at a time when we really, really need all the things that the three of them do."

The Huskies have been practicing since Oct. 13. Stewart said that this team is already a galvanized unit.

"I think everyone has a common goal this year," Stewart said. "That's not to say people didn't have it last year or in the past, but we all know we want to win a national championship and we believe we're capable of doing it."

The collective belief among the players and the coaching staff is that this can be another one of UConn's great teams by season's end. Dolson, Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart appear poised to become UConn's next All-Americans. Tuck and Jefferson might not be far behind.

But it is the Huskies' mental composition that looks to be the team's foundation.

"I think we are a lot more focused than we were last year," Faris said. "We still have our mistakes, but the way we react has been better than it was in the past. We're able to kind of bounce back a lot quicker. And that was always our big issue last year, being on the same page."

relliott@ctpost.com; http://twitter.com/elliottctpost; http://blog.ctnews.com/elliott/