It started with Breanna Lewis.
The K-State center missed a point-blank layup midway through the third quarter against No. 1 Connecticut Sunday, a gimme that would have trimmed the K-State deficit to nine.
Then it was Shaelyn Martin.
Minutes later, the forward caught an inbounds pass along the baseline and faked a pass. All three UConn defenders in the area fell for it, paving Martin a wide-open lane — no Huskies were within 15 feet.
She missed the layup. Bramlage Coliseum groaned.
Lewis’ and Martin’s baskets would have pulled the Wildcats within seven, but UConn responded with an 8-0 run, and the Huskies sat on a comfortable lead the rest of the way for a 75-58 win in Manhattan.
“They go on the road against a lot of quality teams and step on them right away,” K-State head coach Jeff Mittie said.
That’s exactly what the Huskies did to K-State.
But the Wildcats survived a 17-0 UConn run in the first quarter and clawed back to win the second frame 23-20. K-State was gazing up from a 45-31 hole at halftime, a deficit far more manageable.
But the Wildcats, hosting a UConn team that hasn’t lost in more than two years now, saw the game trickle away when two easy layups spun off the rim.
“It gets frustrating,” K-State guard Karyla Middlebrook said, “but at the same time, you have to continue to have confidence.”
As can be expected with a Husky team riding what is now an 84-game winning streak, Connecticut’s weapons were many. Sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson tallied a game-best 26 points behind six triples, and fellow sophomore Napheesa Collier finished with 22 points and eight rebounds.
And they lived up to their dual guard/forward roster listing. Samuelson stands 6-3 and roamed the perimeter for much of the night, creating many a matchup problem for K-State.
Even when she missed the seven 3s she did, Collier was there to pull down the misses.
It made for a nightmare offense for Mittie’s team, now 9-1 on the season.
“With us playing primarily zone, I think the one thing she’s able to do, certainly out top, is she can shoot over most anybody,” Mittie said. “Both her and Collier had big nights. If you got too stretched out on Samuelson, Collier was very effective in that mid-range game. Tough to handle.”
Indeed it was for K-State — Samuelson totaled 14 points in the first quarter alone. The Wildcats began the second quarter with a plethora of fixables on their plate, most notably a 25-8 deficit and six turnovers, for which UConn wasted no time making K-State pay. The Huskies totaled 19 points off turnovers, many of them 3-on-1 fastbreaks — no challenge for Samuelson and Co.
But it all turned around for K-State in the second quarter. Once the Huskies jumped on the Wildcats’ throats in the first frame, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma scaled back his press defense and instead met K-State at half court.
The result was a smoother, more cohesive K-State offense. Senior guard Kindred Wesemann splashed three triples in the second, and without the swarming press to work through, the Wildcats were able to feed Lewis around the basket. She took quick advantage, even against Collier and Samuelson.
The K-State offense revolved around Lewis — when it could. The offense also benefited in droves from Wesemann’s triples, staying within striking distance of the Huskies.
But that changed in the second half, perhaps a tribute to the intellect that accompanies UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s 31 years and 11 national titles at the helm of the program.
Connecticut began denying Lewis the ball underneath and face-guarded Wesemann when the third quarter began. Lewis managed 10 more points, but the Huskies shut down Wesemann completely and undeniably: she went scoreless in the second half.
“We didn’t help off of her as much. Matter of fact, we didn’t help off of her hardly at all,” Auriemma said of his team’s scheme on Wesemann. “By limiting how many times she touched it, when she did get it, she wasn’t in a rhythm.”
Wesemann recognized the defensive change, too.
“I was face-guarded pretty much the whole second half,” she said.
Added Mittie: “They knew that she was one of our top scorers, and certainly our top three-point shooter, and they were going to put a lot of emphasis on making sure she didn’t get any clean looks around the arc.”
As corrected as the Huskies’ defense looked in the second half, though, K-State snaked around it and hung with the best team in the land. UConn outscored K-State just 20-16 in the third, and the Wildcats won the fourth quarter — albeit much of it garbage time — 11-10.
It would have been a narrow, competitive game in the second half — even in the final three quarters, if not for a ruinous first quarter than broke the deal for K-State. The Wildcats turned the ball over on each of its first three possessions.
Jitters were to blame for the Wildcats, at least for a partial explanation. The Huskies made the 17-0 run happen on their own.
“I definitely had jitters,” Middlebrook, who finished with 11 points, said. “I’ve never even had the opportunity to play in front of so many people.
“But I don’t use that an excuse.”
As for what he saw from the sideline in the last three frames, Mittie said his team combined the expected with what he wished to see in the first quarter: polished execution.
“The last three quarters, the way we competed, was much, much better,” he said. “Playing hard is an expectation. You have to execute. You have to make plays. You have to go do those things as well.
“Everybody thinks, ‘well, we’ll just go play hard.’ No. No, you have to do the other things, and we did some good things in that area today.”
The Wildcats failed to dethrone Goliath Sunday, but the good news for K-State is that they get a week off before hosting Ivy League opponent Princeton next Sunday.
Mittie hopes there won’t be anybody missing layups in that one.