Published April 07. 2014 4:00AM
Geno Auriemma saved one of the night's biggest grins for Kiah Stokes, the often exasperating forward, who perhaps provided some foreshadowing for undefeated vs. undefeated. Stokes left the national semifinals in the final seconds, a few steps from being showered with mad props and bon mots from her teammates. Auriemma grinned and said to Stokes, "finally!"
Auriemma rarely needs a translator.
"He meant that finally I played like I know how to play," Stokes was saying inside the UConn locker room, following the 75-56 win over Stanford, the appetizer to the Music City Entrée, otherwise known as the national championship game Tuesday against Notre Dame.
Undefeated vs. undefeated.
"He meant that I'm not afraid to shoot or afraid to be aggressive," Stokes said. "He's like, 'you finally dove on a ball.'"
Stokes, a 6-foot-4 forward, went 4-for-4 from the field and finished with nine points and four rebounds. Modest numbers. But it was the intangibles — presence, length — that might be ominous for the Irish, who will play Tuesday's game without primary post presence Natalie Achonwa, out with an injured knee.
True enough, the Irish took a bat to Maryland, dominating its taller posts. Except that Maryland isn't UConn. For one thing, UConn will show up. And when the Huskies post, it's the length of the posts that loom as the game within the game.
Can Notre Dame emerge from the forest through all those trees?
Breanna Stewart: shaped like 6 o'clock, except with arms longer than "Gone With The Wind."
Stefanie Dolson: There's a reason her Twitter handle is @bigmommastef.
Stokes: the new secret weapon.
Let the record show that Stanford offense began to cough and wheeze after Stokes entered the game in the first half.
"I don't know if there were many defensive changes, aside from maybe their personnel," Stanford senior Chiney Ogwumike said.
"Having their big lineup of Stokes, Dolson and Stewart, that changed things. … They could go big and guard the three. That changed our vision offensively. It's harder to get your shot up."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer: "Their size is really disruptive."
Which makes for a fascinating game. Can the Huskies stifle Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, two dominant guards? Can the Irish function in the post amid all the big bodies and swinging arms?
There's time today to analyze. This night was about Stokes. Auriemma has said throughout the season that while she rebounds and blocks shots, UConn plays "four on five" offensively with her. He decided recently that Stokes was no longer allowed to leave the paint, relegated to moving from block to block to screen for her teammates.
Even Stokes admitted after Sunday's game, "any offense is definitely a bonus."
But then came Sunday. Different strokes for Kiah Stokes. There she was, moving about, catching her teammates' passes and finishing deftly. Might the New Kiah be delivered from the prison of the paint?
"Let's not get crazy," she said.
It's difficult to understate what she means to the program going forward. Immediately, she must be a factor Tuesday. But moving forward, when the Huskies experience L.A.D. (Life After Dolson), they'll need her to be better than functional.
"I know they've probably been waiting three years for this," Stokes said.
Funny, though. When the epiphany happens at the Final Four, it's right on time.
"Coach says I don't care if you make 100 mistakes," Stokes said, "as long as you make a different mistake each time and you go hard."
It's doubtful Auriemma can afford mistakes Tuesday. He'd settle for the sequel to Stanford.
"We watched a little (Notre Dame-Maryland) today," Stokes said. "They were great on the offensive boards. That's not about height.
It's about the want-to to get the rebound. We've got to focus on boxing out."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.