With three minutes remaining in Sunday's Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden, UConn's Tina Charles took one giant drop step, swirled around a Penn State defender, banked in a layup and was fouled. As the whistle blew, she made another huge drop step, this time into the lane, and surrounded by her teammates, let out a growl. Top-ranked UConn had finally escaped the scrappy Penn State team that just wouldn't go away.
"I was just happy about the shot," Charles said afterward. "I think everyone gets excited on and-ones."
Charles missed the free throw, but UConn led 75-61 and Penn State couldn't buy a field goal for the rest of the way as the Huskies survived, 77-63, and remained unbeaten. Still, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the win showed that his team wasn't as infallible as his players may have thought.
"Basketball's a game of makes and misses. And we were under the impression that everyone else in the country misses shots, except for us," said Auriemma. "I think it's important that we realize there are a lot of good teams out there. Just because someone's record is 5-4 or 4-4, that doesn't mean they aren't capable of playing."
Fortunately for the Huskies, who shot 37 percent from the floor and 23 perfect from beyond the arc, Charles came to play. UConn's most improved player this season, Charles had a season-high 29 points and 18 rebounds.
"[Charles] was the dominant force on the court today," said second-year Penn State coach Coquese Washington. "She's a good player, she's athletic and long."
For Charles, it was a statement game for a player who was cast in the shadows last season behind super-freshman Maya Moore, often drawing the ire of Auriemma, who believed Charles wasn't living up to her potential.
"Even after the season, when we lost to Stanford, [Auriemma] he came back and said, 'We have a good point guard, we have a good wingman in Maya, but we don't have a good post presence', and I took that personally," Charles said. "So I spent the summer working, just show him I can change."
Early on Penn State led 19-17, staying within two points of UConn for most of the first half and looked like it might pull off the upset. The Nittany Lions were carried by junior guard Tyra Grant, who was all over the floor and finished with 26 points and eight rebounds.
Playing against a matchup zone that often double-teamed Charles and forced UConn to shoot outside early, the Huskies became increasingly frustrated, committing turnovers in the first half and running out of control. Allowing Penn State to feed off its early success and dribble around a defense that often didn't help on the weak side, the Nittany Lions provided a blueprint of how to rattle UConn.
So with an unranked squad coming into Madison Square Garden to challenge UConn, it begs the question: when will UConn fall? With a cupcake non-conference schedule, the Huskies face a slate on unranked teams in balmy locations like Cancun until January. The consensus on UConn is that Stanford, the only other equally balanced team in the country, is the only real threat the Huskies -- even as they face off against No. 2 North Carolina next month. But the Nittany Lions showed that it might be a scrappy team that knocks off UConn, especially if their shots just aren't falling.
"I just think they came out aggressive," said UConn guard Renee Montgomery. "They were running, they were pushing the ball. I think a lot of teams don't try to run with us ... they stayed right with us, they came out and ran their game plan."