Patriots

Me and UConn: Love hurts

405327.jpg

Me and UConn: Love hurts

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

I was introduced to UConn when I was sixteen.

My dad and I went to a college fair together where I would supposedly meet my perfect match. I was skeptical. First of all, I was a teenager a class of the most suspicious and stubborn humans on the planet. Secondly, walking through aisles of overeager college recruiters is like (how I can only imagine) walking through the Red Light District with Euros hanging out of the zipper of your pants.

You dont exactly feel special.

But I was with my dad; he knew what I was looking for.

Hows your basketball team look this year? hed ask.

Most recruiters were caught off-guard. Theyd tug on their university-issue polo shirts and shuffle through their pamphlets. Several of the pamphlets included statistics on that years incoming freshman, but not the kind that listed weights, heights, and high school shooting percentages.

Was your school named one of the top-25 research institutions in the country? Great. But at what number is the mens hoops team projected in the APs preseason poll?

Teen-me nodded during the inquiries and kept my arms defiantly folded. I was pretty smart and my dad was (and is) exponentially smarter, so I kept to scanning the three-sided poster boards for photos of practice facilities and let him do the talking.

Keep in mind, I wasnt looking for a champion because I played; I was looking because I watched. Religiously.

I grew up in a basketball house. My dad loved the sport on every level and bonded with his three kids by teaching us how to play in the driveway or taking us to local high school games to watch. For my size, I was a remarkably talented spectator.

But there were rules.

At live games you dont get up for anything. A bathroom break at halftime is fine, but popping out for Twizzlers and a Coke, or meeting friends by the water fountain to gossip during play? Dont even. It would be like interrupting Easter Mass to phone a bet in to a bookie.

At home we rooted for the Blue Devils. Our schedule revolved around Dukes. Mike Krzyzewskis rule was irrefutable; Dick Vitales orgasmic rants werent annoying, they were charming; the Cameron Crazies didnt represent a freaky cult, they were a part of storied tradition.

Unfortunately, I wouldnt be a part of the Duke tradition. I was pretty smart, remember, not a total dork.

Still, stopping at UConns table was baffling.

The Huskies won a title in 1999. But a Big East school? I cocked one eyebrow and looked over at my dad. The recruiter was delighted with our priorities.

Theyve built a brand new football stadium in East Hartford, the guy gushed.

Where does the mens basketball team play? my dad asked.

Some kind of soliloquy followed on Jim Calhoun, a No. 7 ranking, and an on-campus pavilion, but I wasnt listening. I was scanning the fair for cute boys who didnt want to go to a school located on a Connecticut cow farm. I wanted ACC hoops. My dad didnt want to pay for plane tickets every time I got homesick.

UConn got my application in 2003 early action.

I was accepted when the Huskies were 7-1.

By March, UConn was 27-6 and Big East tourney champs. My icy little heart was melting, drip by drip, with every Ben Gordon jumper. Josh Boone didnt have great hands, but did have 6 feet and 10 inches of potential and two more years of eligibility. A lot of the guys were underclassmen, in fact, and would be there the next season.

For me.

I was starting to think of myself as a Husky.

On April 3, 2004, UConn tipped off against the No. 1 team the country: Duke. I was distraught. For the first 27 minutes I see-sawed between my childhood sweetheart and my betrothed. With less than three minutes to play, the Blue Devils were up by eight.

Dukes big men were dropping like flies, fouling out with alarming consistency. Each time one of them sat, I cheered and then felt nauseous. Connecticut All-American center Emeka Okafor had played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble and, I dont know, a shattered spine or something. But he put the Huskies onto that broken back of his and carried them to a 79-78 win.

My school was gunning for a national championship.

I was in love.

Little did I know it was an abusive relationship.

I meetMidnight Madness with a heart full of hope. This is our year, I think.UConn cruises through the cupcake non-conference schedule, blowout byblowout, with poise, explosive offensive and oppressive defense.

Then it falls apart. By the Big East Tournament, Im battered; by April Im broken.

Connecticut comes crawling back every October.

Imsweet-talked by promises of returning starters, underclassmen withpromise, and top freshman recruits. Im told that things are going tobe different this time. Like a fool, I believe. All it takes is a123-71 win over Quinnipiac in December and Im drooling by New YearsDay.

Somehow, I never see the uppercut coming.

2004-05: Seven players return from the championshipteam. Add freshman Rudy Gay and ACC Rookie of the Year transfer EdNelson and theres a lot to feel good about. I camp outside theHartford Civic Center on February 13 for the UNC game at 5 a.m. Whena local cop says the neighborhood gangs would love to hurt me, I flexmy biceps and bark.

Two wins over Syracuse during the regularseason are cheapened by a 67-63 loss that bounces the Huskies from theBig East Tournament.

But thats easier to take than watching N.C.States elderly Julius Hodge convert a three-point play with 4.3seconds left. The 65-62 loss knocks UConn out of the NCAA tournament.

It is my initiation into hell.

2005-06:A brilliant year. With a Maui Invitational Championship appetizer,UConn loses just once in its first 26 games. I am drunk with power.

OnThursday, March 9, Gerry McNamara hits a 3 with 5.5 seconds left inregulation to tie the Huskies in the Big East quarterfinal game. Theninth-seeded Orange goes on to beat No. 1 Connecticut 86-84 inovertime.

It getsworse. UConn faces George Mason in the Elite Eight that year. Imthrilled! What the hell is a George Mason? Answer: The ColonialAthletic Conferences Cinderella assassin, sent to murder my Huskies bytwo points in overtime. I wander the Connecticut campus for an hour indumb shock afterwards, ingest roughly 8,000 calories at South dininghall that night, and boycott the rest of March Madness.

2006-07:A 17-14 overall record, 6-10 in conference. Elimination from the BigEast tournament by Syracuse yes, again this time, by 13 points. Notournament, no NIT, no postseason, nothing. For a while, I refuse tobelieve that this year of my life is real.

2007-08: Its asolid bounceback season. UConn finishes 13-5 in the Big East and earnsa No. 4 seed for the national tournament. So when the Huskies tip offin a first-round match up against San Diego, Im excited.

Junior point guard A.J. Prices knee explodes with 9:39 to play in the first half.

Itsaround now that I start to wonder if someone is out to get me. DeJonJackson hits a jumper with 1.2 seconds left in overtime to lift the13th-seeded San Diego Somethings to a 70-69 victory. Per usual, I wantto die. But only a little bit this time.

2008-09: A preseasonNo. 2 ranking in the country is soothing. Rather than be content tohave of the most useless 7-footers in the history of collegebasketball, UConn and Hasheem Thabeet rip it up for a 27-3 record andthe Big East quarterfinal game. To try something different, UConn playsSyracuse. My boys battle the wretched Orange for 40 minutes ofregulation play and six overtimes. When it ends, Syracuse wins 127-117and I am collapsed in front of the TV, exhausted, in a pool of my owntears, saliva and vomit.

UConn loses in the Final Four to Michigan State.

Whatever.

2009-10:January 27, Providence, RI: The only Connecticut basketball Ive seenlive since graduating in 2008. The Huskies get brutalized 81-66 by thebottom-feeding Friars in front of my face. Weeks later, St. John's another Big East weakling spanks UConn in the first round of theconference tourney by 21 points. Its a 2 p.m. game; Imdrunk before 4.

People tell me the Huskies are invited to the NIT. I cant hear them because my sensibilities are drowned in shame.

At noon today the ninth-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies will take on a god-awful DePaul team to open the Big East tournament. Really, DePaul is terrible. The Blue Demons are 7-23.

Naturally, Im expecting the worst.

UConn entered this season unranked but not unloved. The Huskies are currently No. 21 in the country, 21-9 overall and .500 in the Big East because I have willed them here. I ridiculously claimed they could win the Maui Invitational in November; they did. I put my old blinders on and blasted the analysts who said UConn wouldnt beat Texas, Villanova, Georgetown and Syracuse.

They did lose to Syracuse. (And to Louisville, Notre Dame, Marquette and St. Johns.) But still I profess undying loyalty to the freshman, declare my desire to adopt Kemba Walker as a son, and make bets with WVU fans that blow up in my face.

Im going to be a basket case today.

This is not our year. While Ill brag to anyone within earshot that UConn is going to win and keep winning, theres a part of me the part that gave me a seizure when I visited San Diego and induces PTSD when I meet someone named George that expects the Huskies to lose. Probably not to DePaul, but later . . . on a 3-pointer drilled by a 27-year old Gerry McNamara in the 86th overtime frame.

And it will hurt.

Schedules for the 2011-2012 NCAA basketball season should come out in September. Ill call my dad the minute it happens. Hell tell me that Duke is going to be better than UConn and Ill tell him hes crazy. Ill tell him in a voice several octaves too high -- that Shabazz Napier is going to lead the Huskies to their third national title.

Maybe they will. Or maybe Im stupid.

Love does that to a person.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

MORE:

After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE