Will injuries prevent a Connecticut four-peat?

Connecticut star forward Brianna Stewart tweaked an ankle in practice earlier this week. Then this past Monday – in a meaningless game in December, Coach Geno Auriemma kept her on the bench in street clothes.

She joined other injured Huskies who remain inactive: Saniya Chong and Natalie Butler. Auriemma had only nine active players on his bench for this contest, including two walk-ons that he awarded scholarships this season. The UConn starters suddenly included two freshmen (Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier) a sophomore and a junior. The front court was suddenly a lot shorter and less intimidating: Morgan Tuck at 6-2 and Collier at 6-1. Samuelson is 6-4, but spends most of her time on the perimeter.

Going into the match up with LSU, it seemed possible that perfect record of the nation’s top team might be in jeopardy. But it was not to be. This opponent was unfortunately not your older sister’s Tiger squad. The tallest starter for the LSU is 6-0, and the team doesn’t shoot well (29.6%). They do not protect the ball, and turned it over 28 times in this game, which lead to 35 Connecticut points.  The Tigers also don’t play particularly great defense.

For Connecticut, playing without Stewart was bound to be an adjustment. She has missed just four games in her career – all in her freshman season. The Husky offense runs through her. She is a vocal leader on defense, whose length and quickness allows her teammates’ aggression on the ball.

Adjusting to her absence took some time, as things were pretty sloppy in the first quarter. UConn relied heavily on threes at the start of the game, and missed most of them. The Husky defense, however, was typically active and stifling, even without Stewart’s blocking ability. Collier stepped into that role, blocking five shots in the first half six overall. She matched her career high with 12 rebounds, and contributed four steals and a number of deflections.

Collier gets more confident and contributes more each game. She may be the surprise of the season, at least to the uninitiated. Auriemma was pleased with her play, but believes she can do more.

“’Pheesa’s moving so much that she finds herself in the right spot more times than not,” he observed. “And that’s on both ends.”

He wants her to shoot the ball more often, but has not found the right game time motivation.

“When we’re in practice, every time she touches the ball she shoots it,” Auriemma said. “And she hits about 70% of them. We’ve got to encourage her to be more offensive minded, because she can do that.”

What did we learn about the “supporting cast” at UConn? Nothing really surprising. There’s still a lot of talent on the team, and they are still really well-coached. Without the standard Stewart double-team, things were a bit harder for both Jefferson and Tuck, but by the second half, the whole team had adjusted. The post was less productive. But the defense, at least against a mid-level team, adjusted well, played with tenacity, and kept the opponent off balance. Everyone added just a little bit, and Connecticut still had five players in double figures by the end.

Samuelson, in her fist start, most resembles Stewart physically, but did not allow that to become a trap.

“I didn’t think of it [as replacing Stewart],” she said. “None of us are going to replace her, because none of us can do what she does. We just knew that we all had to do a little bit extra.”

Samuelson did her part, matching a career high in points and playing a career high in minutes (32). Overall, Auriemma was encouraged.

“When was the last time we had two freshmen in the starting lineup?” he mused. “If it was Moriah and Stewie, that’s a while ago.”

Collier and Samuelson will not “replace” those two all-Americans, but they are likely to be key parts of UConn’s future. Each has the ability to be All-Americans before they are through.

Connecticut has won three championships in a row, but this year’s injury bug could be an impediment to a four-peat.

While injuries kept Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis out for extended games last season, she was recovered in time for March. Other than that, UConn has been relatively injury-free for three seasons. This year has been different.

Chong has missed most of the season.  Butler and De’Janae Boykin (who announced her transfer last week) have not played a minute for the Huskies. Now Stewart is out for an unannounced period.

The bottom line this day, however, is that UConn, without Stewart or Chong, defeated LSU (RPI 161) by 46 points, 86-40. Two talented freshmen got a taste of longer minutes with more responsibility. It could also turn out that this rash of injuries was a good thing.

Connecticut faces #5 Maryland next Monday in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden.