UConn’s adjusts yet again after losing “glue player” Kia Nurse

Napheesa Collier initiates the fast break. Photo by Steve Slade.
Napheesa Collier initiates the fast break. Photo by Steve Slade.

The national media attention surrounding UConn has focused on the 100-plus win streak, the athleticism of Gabby Williams, and the consistent excellence of Napheesa Collier, and the astonishing (until recently) three-point shooting of Katie Lou Samuelson. Very little attention has focused on Kia Nurse.

But since Nurse went to the bench with a “stress reaction” in her ankle earlier this month, however, it has been obvious that she provided much of the glue that held this young Husky team together.

Nurse is the mature Olympian from Canada, the steady, un-flashy presence on the court. She also is the team’s best perimeter defender, best three-point shooter (.422), best free-throw shooter, and the leader in minutes played. When Tulane had a chance to beat the UConn in the last minute last week, Nurse was sorely missed.

Temple is a far better team than Tulane. The Owls feature the best guard combo in the AAC, and among the best in the nation in Alliya Butts and Feyonda Fitzgerald. Together they are quick, driving guards who can make their own shots, even from beyond the arc and average over 31 points per game. While they were held to 20 points total in the Huskies’ victory on Feb. 1, fellow guard Tanaya Atkinson went off for 20 – eight above her average in that contest. A fourth guard, Donnaizha Fountain, has averaged 15.1 points in conference play. Handling these guards was a daunting task for UConn the last time, and one in which Nurse played a major role. Without her, Temple had to come to Hartford thinking they could be the ones to break the streak.

And with good reason. Coach Tonya Cardoza has her team ranked for the first time in its history, at No. 23/20 in the polls. The Owls are 11-2 in the league, losing only to UConn and to No. 21/22 South Florida in back-to-back games three weeks ago. They had not lost to anyone else since early December.

Gabby Williams takes flight for two points. Photo by Steve Slade.
Gabby Williams takes flight for two points. Photo by Steve Slade.

All year, Husky coach Geno Auriemma has warned that his team has been very good at hiding its flaws. After the close game at Tulane, he added that UConn’s high shooting percentage put pressure on the opponent which most could not handle. But when the Huskies couldn’t sink any shots last Saturday, that pressure was gone. With an even more depleted bench, any foul trouble exposed the weak bench even more than in earlier games. With Collier in foul trouble on the bench, Tulane closed to within three points in the third quarter.

Although Auriemma professed not to see it in their demeanor, the UConn players recognized the failures exposed at Tulane.

“You could tell at Tulane that our heads weren’t in it,” Williams admitted. “There was no excuse for it. It looked lazy. It looked like we didn’t care. And that’s not what this program is about. So tonight we tried to be really locked in and only focus on what we had to get done.”

Mission accomplished. This flexible UConn squad focused superbly to shut down Temple’s dynamic guards and crush the Owls 90-45 on Wednesday. The Husky defense was sterling at controlling those guards for 40 minutes. Temple tallied just four points in the paint, all off the fast break. Only nine Owl field goals were two-pointers. They guards became so frustrated by UConn’s near flawless rotations and superior length, that the few times the Husky defense erred, Temple’s guards turned away from open lanes as if they couldn’t believe that the space was really there.

Most surprising to Geno Auriemma was the defensive activity of Saniya Chong, which he has often criticized.

“I thought our three perimeter players would really be challenged today, and you saw that those three [Temple guards] are hard to guard, but we did a great job on them,” he said. “I thought Saniya especially, and Lou. Saniya was really good tonight on the perimeter. . . . That third quarter I don’t think they could get a shot off. That third quarter was about as good as we can play defensively against a team that’s hard to play against.”

Asked a few minutes later about Chong’s “really good” defense, Auriemma blanched.

“Did I say that?” he asked with a smile. “I think our guards, defensively, are a work in progress.”

Napheesa Collier drives by the Temple defense to score. Photo by Steve Slade.
Napheesa Collier drives by the Temple defense to score. Photo by Steve Slade.

UConn also remembered how to score. Collier added to her All-American credentials with 31 points on 13-14 shooting, including two of two threes. She also led the team with 13 rebounds. Samuelson had seven assists and six steals to go with 19 points, including two late threes after half a dozen misses. Williams was a perfect 7-7 from the field, and scored her 1,000th career point. The final score: 90-45.

UConn used defense, steals and rebounding to take a 23-11 lead after one quarter, repeatedly scoring off forced turnovers.  Continuing a disturbing trend, the Huskies – once the nation’s leading three point team – missed all five of their three-point attempts. Temple, by contrast, could only hit from outside, scoring 12 of their first 14 points from beyond the arc.

The second quarter started as a turnover-fest, and the teams combined for just 10 points in the first five minutes. The Huskies drew away slowly, however, by drawing interior fouls and hitting most of their free throws. With Williams on the bench for the entire period with three fouls, Natalie Butler played good defense, but was offensively hopeless, missing her two free throws and turning the ball over in traffic. Samuelson finally hit a three, but followed it on the next possession with an airball from the same place. Temple struggled with an active UConn defense, however, and scored just eight points in the second period.

The Owls turned the ball over 15 times in the first half, and UConn turned those miscues into 19 points. The visitors shot just 23.3 percent for the half, failing to score for a stretch of five minutes during the second period. Collier had 18 points on 7-8 shooting. Temple was 4-12 from three point range, but just 3-18 from two. Four Husky starters played all 20 minutes.

UConn scored the first eight points of the second half, forcing Cardoza to burn her third timeout as the lead bulged to 30 points. Temple’s sterling guards simply could not penetrate the Husky defense. The third quarter belonged to the defense and to Collier and Williams, who combined for 16 points without missing a shot. The fourth quarter was a formality, with UConn outscoring the Owls 25-10 to finish with a 90-45 victory, that also made the Huskies the AAC regular season Champions. UConn has never lost an AAC game.

No. 1 UConn has two remaining games: Senior night Saturday against Memphis (13-14) and Monday at no-longer-ranked South Florida (21-6). Temple’s Senior Night is also Saturday against Cincinnati (16-11). They close the season at Central Florida on Monday. The ACC tournament begins Friday, March 3, but both UConn and Temple have a bye until Saturday’s quarterfinals.