UConn seniors celebrated for outstanding careers after tough win

UConn’s senior class has lost just five games in four years – four of which were when they were freshmen. The other was an overtime loss to Stanford in Nov. 2014. Since then, this group has won 66 in a row. Overall, they are 142-5, including 113 of the last 114. The last three National Championships belong to them.

Saturday was Senior Day in the city of Storrs, and Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck and Briana Pulido (who joined the team as a sophomore walk-on) were given their ceremonial jerseys in front of a sold-out Gampel Pavilion crowd.

Saturday was also the start of a weekend of mystifying offensive ineffectiveness that left UConn looking far less invincible than at any time in the last two years. Then, and again on Monday, the Huskies were outplayed in the first quarter and then the first half by lesser competition.

The seniors were collectively 4-25 in the first half of Saturday’s contest (Pulido did not attempt a shot) against a talented Tulane team that has an outside chance to make the NCAA tournament. UConn missed its first 12 field goals, many of them from inside four feet. Their first made field goal was with 1:25 remaining in the first quarter. The Green Wave won the first quarter 13-8, which was the first time UConn has been behind after 10 minutes this season.

Two days later, against a ranked South Florida team, the Huskies looked off-balance for the entire first half. Tough post defense by the shorter Bulls forced them to shoot (and miss) threes, and to force poor shots in the paint. Quick rotations drew four charges in the first half. UConn rarely fouls, but on this day, they committed 11 fouls in the first half. Their normally-composed offense seemed to aim shots rather than shooting them in rhythm. For perhaps the first time all year, the Huskies appeared rattled. Tuck conceded that “we were definitely back on our heels in that first quarter.”

A 52% shooting team, they shot just 28% in the first half and scored just 24 points – the lowest total in at least two seasons. UConn entered the locker room behind (by one point) at the half. The last time that happened, Nov. 21, 2014, they lost to Stanford, their only loss in the last two years.

UConn is, however, the best team in the nation, and they regrouped during halftime in each contest to dominate the second half both days. Against a very quick and talented South Florida team, Coach Geno Auriemma moved Stewart to the high post to alter the look of the game. The Huskies scored the first six points of the second half.

Reserve Kia Nurse, offensively missing in recent weeks, hit two threes in the first six minutes. The second of them gave UConn a ten point lead at 3:55. Stewart played like a woman possessed, moving constantly, finding space with movement rather than statically camping near the lane. She scored 16 points in the third quarter after being limited to seven in the first half. On defense, UConn mixed in a zone which seemed to confuse the USF offense.

“We’re not a very good zone team,” Auriemma said. “When we went to the zone – sometimes we’re so bad that I’m confused – and it confused them a little bit.”

In the player-to-player defense, UConn showed far greater intensity than before. They looked, in short, like the country’s best defense. USF’s Courtney Williams, the AAC’s leading scorer who had 15 points in the first half, was held scoreless in the third quarter. In ten minutes, UConn out ran South Florida 32-14, to take a 17-point lead, 56-39. Asked to explain the intensity of the third quarter, Stewart joked “It’s supposed to be March. It’s just delayed a day this year. We’re supposed to play well now.” The final was 79-59.

Is there hope for the elite teams from this weekend of Husky basketball? UConn, the nation’s leading offensive team, was limited to 8 and 15 points in the first quarter of the two games. They looked disorganized for much of that time, and shot very poorly, effectively playing their “C-” game. They did look vulnerable at times, but the recovery in the second halves of those games also emphasizes why they are so hard to beat. Nurse, 5-19 from three in the last five games, was 4-7 for 15 points in this one. Saturday, freshman Katie Lou Samuelson hit 6 of 9 threes and scored 21 points. And Stewart, seemingly ordinary in the first part of each game, still managed to score 47 points and grab 25 boards in the two games.

The lesson for opponents to take from from these two games about playing UConn are not new: pack the middle, hope they play their ‘C’ game, make them shoot threes. If they make them (the team averages .357 on the year), you lose. If not, and you make some of your own, you might win. Only might win. UConn’s defense is gelling at the rights time, and it at time, it looks as effective as last year’s best in the nation. Once again, the Huskies lead Division I in scoring defense (47.7) Scoring against them is never going to be easy. And on most days, you won’t be able to outscore them without hitting a lot of those three-pointers.

Entering the post-season, UConn has, of course, beaten every contender. They defeated #2 Notre Dame and #6 Maryland by 10, #3 South Carolina by 12, #5 Ohio State by 44, #21 South Florida by 16 and 20, #21 DePaul by 16, and #12 Florida State by 24.

The bottom line, even after this unusual pair of games, is that UConn is still undefeated, still ranked number one, still the favorite to win it all. Through many years and ten National Championships, Auriemma has proven that he can prepare his team for March better than any other coach right now. And UConn’s sterling senior class rises to the competition as well as any in the school’s history. Stewart’s evaluation of the second half against USF could just as well apply to the games of the two upcoming tournaments.

“I think we knew what we needed to do,” she explained. “It’s just the sense of going out there and doing it with a sense of urgency and aggressively. We were playing more aggressive, we were getting more shots, more offensive rebounds in the second half. If we do that it makes the game a lot more fun.”

Senior Night — and a special award

UConn’s possible vulnerability is the story of the past weekend, but there was also a celebration of the remarkable senior class of Stewart, Jefferson, Tuck and Pulido.

An incomplete summary of the accomplishments of the four-year seniors is truly astonishing. If the Huskies win their 11th title this year, these seniors will be the only players to win four in men’s or women’s NCAA history. They are likely to be the first three players taken in the WNBA draft.

Stewart is in the conversation for the best Husky player of all time. She is second all-time in points (2508 and counting), fifth in rebounds(1096…), second in blocked shots (385…). She is also in the mix for title of the best women’s college basketball player of all time. She is the only player in NCAA history to (1) block 300+ shots and dish 300+ assists (she will probably break 400 each) and (2) win three Final Four MVP awards (she could well win four).

Jefferson won the Nancy Lieberman Award (best point guard) in 2015, and is nearly a lock to win it again this year. Just the second player in school history to distribute 600 assists (606 . . .) and 300 steals (334 . . .), she is the quickest player on the court any given night, a great shooter (1435 points . . .), and a tenacious defender.

Tuck has been content to be what Auriemma has called the “glue of the team.” She is not flashy. She is calm, consistent, and efficient, a solid post scorer, a great passer, and a even a capable three-point shooter (though only .260 this year, and 1-10 in the last six games). She only recently has been a focus of media attention, more for questions about whether her left knee is sound and whether she will return for a redshirt year than for the aforementioned consistent and steadying play as a slightly undersized (6-2) post. She is the team’s best post defender, and among the best in a long line of talented Connecticut post passers (245 assists in 106 games). When she gets the ball on the low block, she is very hard to defend. Her .496 field goal percentage would be outstanding if not for the fact that it is 100 points lower than last season. Nonetheless, she is projected to be the third or fourth pick in the WNBA draft if she does not return to UConn. Given her participation in senior night, odds are that is the likely scenario.

Huskies of Honor

Saturday’s senior night was also a banner night in another respect – literally. High on the wall of Gampel Pavilion hangs banners celebrating Huskies of Honor. It celebrates UConn’s first team All-Americans, from Kerry Bascom through Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. There are now 18 of these. Auriemma is up there, too, along with banner for five of the undefeated teams. Stewart and Jefferson were added on Saturday, for their awards last season. Both are certain to be All-Americans again, but you only get one banner.

The unveiling this year held a surprise: longtime associate head coach Chris Dailey joined those on the wall. Dailey has been with Auriemma from his first year, in 1986. She never appears in post-game press conferences (except on two occasions when Auriemma was away from the team). This day, she was there, teary-eyed at the honor, and shocked that she had no idea it was coming.

“Geno doesn’t keep secrets very well,” Dailey explained. “I didn’t know anything. He didn’t say anything. Usually you would think somebody would blab, and usually it would be him.”

Any even casual student of UConn women’s basketball knows that all those victories (946 of them) are hers, too. But generally, Auriemma is the face of the team, and Dailey’s contributions are well-known but not often mentioned. Auriemma decided that it was time to recognize her on that wall.

“The most important thing is putting CD up on that wall puts her next to — not above, not under — all the people who wouldn’t be on that wall if it wasn’t for her,” Auriemma said. “Every one of those players that are up there. It’s a pretty good chance they’d tell you they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for a bunch of stuff CD did.”

Dailey certainly belongs up there. As she and Auriemma lead the Huskies into another post-season – and almost certainly at least seven more wins – there might be a little crack in UConn’s invincibility after this weekend. But don’t count on it.