Program-Best Season Lands UConn in NCAA Tournament
|UConn junior Lauren Kahn leads the Huskies in all major statistical categories and was named Big East Midfielder of the Year. UConn has a program-best 13-4 record this season.|
The scene at UConn's Rentschler Field was tense when the Huskies gathered to watch Sunday's NCAA Division I women's lacrosse selection show. Twenty-two of the 26 tournament teams had been announced, and the Huskies were getting antsy. Regional rival and Atlantic 10 champion UMass had drawn the 22nd tournament berth, and there were only three more at-large bids remaining.
"It was unreal. You could feel the tension. You could feel the stress," UConn coach Katie Woods said.
Finally, the Huskies heard their name. They'd be playing opposite the Minutewomen in a first-round game. UConn had earned the program's first NCAA tournament bid.
"When we got called, almost everybody on my team shed a tear," junior midfielder Lauren Kahn said. "We'd had pretty good seasons before, but nothing worth mentioning. We came in to this year wanting to put UConn lacrosse on the map, and wanting to go places.
"Just seeing your name up on that board, being called one of the top teams in the country, it's one of the best feelings in the world."
The Huskies are one of six teams getting a first-time NCAA tournament bid this year, along with Stony Brook, Denver, Jacksonville, High Point and Canisius.
"I'm so excited that we did earn the bid," Woods said. "They get to see their hard work pay off."
UConn was predicted to finish sixth in the Big East by conference coaches in a preseason poll. Instead, the Huskies' balanced attack and backer zone defense earned a program-best 13-4 record, including wins over NCAA tournament teams Notre Dame and Boston College, and a perfect 7-0 mark at home. UConn made the Big East tournament for the first time ever, and is now for the NCAA tournament.
"The zone, that's caught some offensive units off guard," Woods said. "It makes attackers adjust their game. Offensively, nobody cares about who puts the ball away."
A 13-player senior class has given the 2013 season some urgency.
"They're in this playing-to-win mentality in their final season, and they want to extend their season as long as possible. And I'm down with that," Woods said.
Woods and her staff made practices more productive this year, adding competitive elements to drills and making much use of the scoreboard clock.
"We do everything on the clock," Woods said. "It makes them understand game situations, even if it's a handball game. They still get that similar feeling to what it's like on game day."
UConn has gone 6-0 in games decided by two goals or less, including four overtime wins. The zone defense has held opponents to an average of 9.35 goals per game. Strong dodging teams like Syracuse, who beat the Huskies in the regular season and in the Big East semifinal, can beat the zone, but pass-oriented offenses struggle against it.
UMass, the Huskies' opponent in the first round at 6 p.m. Friday at neutral-site Penn State, is in the national top five on scoring offense (15.11 goals per game). Junior attacker Sam Rush leads the Minutewomen in goals (61) and has a blistering .670 shooting percentage. About half of UMass' goals are assisted.
"I'd never played [zone]. The way it works, you just have to always be connected," said UConn's Kahn, who won Big East Midfielder of the Year honors this season. "If all your defenders aren't on the same page, there are going to be holes everywhere. But when it works, it really works."
Kahn is UConn's statistical leader in all major categories: goals (38), assists (23), points (61), caused turnovers (31), ground balls (46) and draw controls (60). At the conference banquet, Woods pulled Kahn aside to give a heads-up that she was in the running for a major award.
"I was like, 'OK, OK, whatever.' Then later, the MC was reading off the stats and I started shaking. I couldn't believe it. It was honestly such an honor to be named Midfielder of the Year, especially in the Big East where you're surrounded by such good players," Kahn said.
Woods won Big East Coach of the Year at the same ceremony. In just her third year, with only a handful of her own recruits, she's lifted the Huskies from a conference afterthought to an NCAA tournament bid.
"There are amazing coaches in the Big East, and I'm not just saying this because she's my coach, but she deserved that award," Kahn said. "She came in here and she got everybody on board and she knew where this program was going. She's always pushing us and expecting the best, but we needed it. This year, we played for her and she deserved that award 100 percent. I'm so happy she got it."
And happy the Huskies are in the tournament.