Freshman Dangerfield speeds UConn past Baylor, 72-61

Crystal Dangerfield runs the break for UConn. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Crystal Dangerfield runs the break for UConn. Photo by Stephen Slade.

Storrs, Conn. – Nobody saw this coming. Nobody expected a freshman playing in just her second game to lift this No. 3 Connecticut team onto her slim 5-5 frame and to dominate the game. Nobody expected the huge No. 2 Baylor front line to be held to 15 points.

This was the game that was going to confirm parity in women’s basketball, with perennial winner UConn looking up to several teams. That may still happen, but on this night, women’s basketball has to be in shock that the Huskies once more defeated a ranked opponent by double digits.

The biggest revelation was the play of freshman Crystal Dangerfield, the smallest player on the floor. In just her second college game, she seized control and just would not let go until the Huskies were victorious. Dangerfield scored 19 points (8-14 shooting, 3-5 from three), dished five assists to just one turnover, and even grabbed four rebounds.

She first entered the game with 2:24 remaining in the first period, and exactly 30 seconds later hit a 22-foot three-pointer as the shot clock expired. Her performance demanded comparisons with Moriah Jefferson, her predecessor, with whom she shares speed, size and body type.

“Crystal coming in out of high school was a little further ahead than where Moriah was coming out of HS, simply because of the environment she came from,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “The USA basketball experience, you can’t discount that experience. So, she’s a little bit further ahead. . . . right now after two games. . . . Will she be further ahead three years from now?”

“I just hope she catches up. It’s one thing to be far ahead, and you’ve still got a long way to catch up.”

Even though the Huskies won by eleven points, the game was exciting and competitive. The lead change seven times, and was tied at 54 in the fourth quarter. Over the last seven minutes, however, UConn looked exactly like their most recent incarnations, dominating the end-game with an 16-2 run from 7:47 to the last minute of the game. Five points in that last minute by Baylor’s Alexis Jones were meaningless.

Bears coach Kim Mulkey ascribed the final Husky surge, and their victory, to “toughness, just flat out toughness. They just played tough and didn’t get rattled.” Auriemma, who is known to have a half-empty glass most of the time admitted that “Those last six or seven minutes, I think we grew up a lot.”

“I thought relative to last Monday night we really earned it. We were good tonight, we were good when we had to be,” Auriemma said.

Good enough to beat the No. 2 team in the polls.

This was UConn’s second game of the season and Baylor’s third. The game was competitive and fun to watch. It was also erratic, as early season play tends to be. Those seven lead changes reflected teams ability, then inability, to focus on their strengths.

The Huskies are not a tall team, though they are athletic, with no starter over 6-1. Baylor has three players over 6-4, so Mulkey sensibly began the game pounding the ball inside. UConn looked like a completely different defensive team than the porous group that played at Florida State last week, and were not overwhelmed. They rotated well, and forced the Bears deep into the shot clock often in the first quarter.

Offensively, the Huskies moved without the ball much better early, using back door cuts and spacing to keep up with Baylor. The Bears, on the other hand, seemed out of sorts offensively by midway through the first quarter. Alexis Jones hit both her shot attempts, but was not the focus of the offense, despite the fact that UConn’s Kia Nurse could not guard her.

Husky reserve center Natalie Butler entered the game because Gabby Williams once again had early foul trouble. Butler played like a real center, shooting, defending, rebounding. Her 20 minutes were a great performance for her, and promising for the future.

The score after 10 minutes: UConn 19 (57 percent)- Baylor 14 (35 percent). More surprising, the Huskies led on the boards 8-7.

Baylor fixed the Jones issue quickly at the break, and she was much more involved, and equally successful, in the second quarter. They also got even bigger inside, with 6-4 Beatrice Mompremier and 6-7 freshman Lauren Cox in at the same time. It showed on the boards, as the Bears pulled ahead in rebounds – especially offensive ones. They also began to run their offense more smoothly, getting Kristy Wallace open to hit three  threes-pointers in the period.

The Husky defense, however, remained remarkably sound, with Natalie Butler repeatedly making stops, rotating intelligently, and doing a credible job of making the paint unwelcome to Baylor. She capped off the best quarter of her career by guarding Jones on the perimeter as time ran out, forcing an air-ball. The Bears shot just 32 percent for the half.

Score at the half: UConn 32, Baylor 29.

The second half began much as the Bears had hoped the game would, on a 9-0 run. It was one and done for the Huskies, as Baylor posts dominated on defense, and scored easily on offense. Butler did not start the half. Dangerfield, however, was entered after three minutes, and the UConn offense immediately calmed down, and picked up.

Mompremier picked up her fourth foul at 2:45 and sat. Cox, despite her status as high school player of the year, lacked the footwork to guard the quick UConn forwards, and was pulled from the game after four minutes. Kalani Brown, 6-4, replaced her.

Momentum shifted regularly, and the score fluctuated, but the Huskies did enough to stay in the lead. The officials began to affect things in the third quarter, as touch fouls became common, forcing both teams to back off a bit on defense. Dangerfield excelled, penetrating into the lane to open up a series of 15 footers for her teammates.

The score at after 3 quarters: UConn 54, Baylor 49.

Jones, the senior, decided to take over in the fourth quarter, and the Huskies stalled a bit. A 5-0 run tied it at 54. In response, Dangerfield did the same for UConn. She grabbed the reins and showed no fear, driving into the trees to score from under the rim off the glass. Her forays into the paint opened up her teammates, and the Huskies spread the scoring around to take a 64-56 lead.

At that point, Mompremier’s fouled out on a moving screen, and Baylor’s interior presence was diminished.  Another acrobatic inside basket by Dangerfield stretched the lead to 66-59, and Alexis Prince shoved her, drawing a technical. Katie Lou Samuelson made both, UConn burned clock, then scored late in the next two possessions, extending the lead to 72-58. A Jones three ended Baylor’s scoring, and the Huskies finished with an unexpected, and dynamic victory.

Jones led all scorers with 23 points (9-19), but got help only from Kristy Wallace, who scored nine of her eleven points in the first half. Nina Davis, Baylor’s other senior star, was held scoreless in 24 minutes of play. The Baylor bigs had just 15 total points, fewer than Samuelson (16). All-American Nina Davis was held scoreless by UConn’s perimeter defenders, who are tall for guards, though short for post players.

It is just the second game of the year. Predictions at this point in the season are unlikely to hold true. Is Baylor worse than their ranking, or are the Huskies going to be really, really good? We will see in time.

The story of this game is clearly the premature emergence of Dangerfield as a big-game player and a fearless leader. If she is able to bring this kind of play often and regularly in the big games, UConn will be a tough out for everyone. Moriah Jefferson was watching the next great Husky point guard’s coming-out, and tweeted “I see you !”

All those teams out there who thought this was the year they would beat UConn are a lot more nervous today.  The Huskies next play at LSU, and Baylor hosts Mississippi Valley State, both on Sunday.