Contrary to prior belief, the UConn Women’s Basketball team is mortal. The overtime loss to Stanford last Monday night proved just that. Yes, the loss ended top-ranked UConn’s 47 game win streak and dashed the faithful’s dreams of yet another season of perfection. But, for head coach Geno Auriemma the early season loss, though disappointing, may in some respects have been just the thing his Huskies needed if indeed they are destined to cut down the nets in April.
The Huskies (1-1), after crushing UC Davis on the road in the season opener, were the recipients of a large dose of reality in game two of the brief west coast swing, with the Cardinal providing the stunner. UConn, at times playing uninspired defense and lacking their trademark up tempo offensive attack, let a ten point lead with just over six minutes to play in regulation evaporate before losing in overtime to the sixth ranked (AP) Stanford squad. The loss was an early season wake up call.
Said Auriemma, “When you win, sometimes it masks a lot of things you don’t do well. And if you lose it can expose (weaknesses).” He added, “Sometimes a game’s lost before it’s played. That when you lose, there’s usually something leading up to that game that caused you to lose. Right now, our practice habits defensively are not very good. We’re trying to get (the kids) to understand you don’t win by just outscoring the other team. That’s not how we win at Connecticut.”
Much of a team’s identity and success is a reflection of a certain individual or individual’s leadership skills. Auriemma is still searching for that player or players to take the reins and put the team on their proverbial back both on and off the court. Traditionally the responsibility has fallen on seniors to rise to the challenge, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis being the most likely candidate, but that’s not always the case. Playing her first three years in the shadow of recent greats like the effervescent Stefanie Dolson and hard-nosed players like Bria Hartley and Kelly Faris, she only needed to lead UConn by putting points on the board.
The natural progression would have been for her to seize the leadership reins, but, KML has seemed to shy away from visibly and vocally leading the team, leaving Auriemma to look to his juniors to emerge as this year’s leaders. Even that proposition has been slow to take hold.
Coach lamented the lack of senior leadership on this year’s team and past teams by saying, “There’s not much you can do. You hope (seniors) acquiesce their leadership obligations to those guys who do have the leadership qualities and (continue) on being good players and good citizens and play hard. We’ve been in that situation quite a number of times in the 30 years I’ve been here. In those years we’ve had an iconic senior leader we’ve had great teams and when we haven’t, we’ve struggled (and a season’s success or failure typically reflects that). “
Auriemma’s junior class of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck are gradually rising to the challenge.
Said Auriemma on his emerging, albeit reluctant, junior trio, “(Jefferson’s) kind of an outgoing personality. Tucks just coming back from a (knee) injury and (Stewarts) more quiet.”
The loss to Stanford may have drawn Stewart out of her shell, voicing her displeasure with the team’s effort and the outcome. For Auriemma, in an otherwise frustrating loss, Stewie’s play and post-game voice were a welcome combination.
On her steady maturation coach said, “(Stewart) likes to lead by, ‘I’ll block a shot. I’ll get a big bucket. I’ll make a big three. I’ll do something to let you know I’ll be here when you need me’. With (Dolson and Hartley) she didn’t have to (be vocal). It’s becoming evident for her that she’s going to have to take on a bigger role and that involves being physically and vocally stronger. She’s starting to do that on her own. She became a presence in the lane (in the Stanford game). She sensed the need (to play in) the middle with no Dolson.”
UConn will look to bounce back today in its home opener when Creighton (2-1) pays a visit to the Gampel Pavilion on the Storrs campus. Creighton, a guard oriented team and led by Big East Player of the Year, Marissa Janning (18.0 ppg), will test the Huskies defense with its multiple screen, open floor offense.
“(Creighton’s) a team for us to get better. We need teams that challenge us defensively in how disciplined they are. They use all five players. They don’t have a big guy at center so they spread you out and they back you off the dribble and have a lot of combination screens, so it makes young guys really have to think, so it’s a great game for us.”
The Stanford loss exposed some of UConn’s growing pains, but, its only November, and those short comings can be corrected.