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UConn exhibition games offer a mere glimpse of the newbies

Kia Nurse gets aggressive on defense for the Huskies. Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics.
Kia Nurse gets aggressive on defense for the Huskies. Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics.

Storrs – Zero in a row. After years of counting up toward 111 consecutive wins, the UConn Huskies begin this year with a winning streak of zero. They also begin with four returning starters – three of them already All-Americans.

Point guard Crystal Dangerfield has replaced the graduated Saniya Chong in the starting lineup, but she takes the court with three those All-Americans (senior Gabby Williams, sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson) and an Olympian (Canadian senior Kia Nurse) – all of whom have an NCAA title or two. Dangerfield played significant minutes last year, but Coach Geno Auriemma says she is vastly improved, and is ready to be the true point guard to lead this team. Her court vision is outstanding, and she can deliver the ball to any point on the court with remarkable precision. Auriemma has been practically lavish in his praise of her practice and play.

It is early in the long march of the basketball season, and this week was for exhibition games, hardly a predictor of anything long term. But these games allow observers to preview the “new” kids in game situations. For UConn, that means two transfers and four freshmen. The Wednesday and Sunday exhibition games in Connecticut allowed some limited observations.

The spotlight shines most brightly on junior transfer Azura Stevens, from Duke, who is a 6-6 athlete with all-around skills widely considered to be one of the most versatile and talented players in the country. She has spent a year learning the Husky way and practicing with the best players in the nation. The observable result is that she fits in with her teammates, at least on offense.

“She’s comfortable to play with because she doesn’t clog things up,” Auriemma said. “It’s not like some big players. Sometimes I look out there and it seems like we have five guards because of the way she handles the ball.”

Simply put, Stevens may actually meet the anticipation of her debut at Connecticut, if…..she rebounds well, of course, given her height. But her positioning and boxing-out are more well-developed than might be predicted from a player who was expected only to score at Duke. In 37 minutes in the two games, she grabbed 18 boards, five of them offensive. She shot 15-26 for 26 points, but missed all seven three-point attempts. Stevens also is a refined passer, with good court vision, and an understanding of the Huskies’ movement offense. The high-low give and go from Samuelson to a cutting Stevens was especially effective, and is going to haunt teams all season. How do you guard a 6-3 and a 6-6 player on the perimeter at the same time?

The “if” in the paragraph above has to do with defense. Despite her length and quickness, Stevens does not appear dedicated yet to the kind of defense for which UConn is renowned. She is an active defender, with excellent recovery time. She has the quickness to defend the perimeter and still recover to stifle attempts to drive around her. The question is how tenaciously she will do so. Her defense generally can still be considered a weakness. Despite her active feet, she does not have a thorough understanding of where to be next on defense, and her rotations could be quicker. Six foot six can make up for many mistakes, but she will be the player teams try to exploit until her defensive effort and anticipation both improve.

There are four freshmen, all of them tall guards: Gatorade Player of the Year Andra Espinoza-Hunter (5-11), ESPN Hoopgurlz No. 1 Megan Walker (6-1), Mikayla Coombs (5-8), and Alexis Gordon (6-0).

The first of them off the bench in both games was Walker. Listed as a G/F, she is no more limited to either of those positions than are the UConn starters. Athletic and confident, she can handle the ball, and has quick feet and great tenacity on defense. She showed none of the reticence freshmen often exhibit when playing with the starters, taking good shots, but not forcing them. Her passes were crisp, and usually well-placed. She crashed the boards hard, and has decent leaping ability. Against overmatched opponents, she showed no obvious weaknesses. Walker played twenty minutes on Sunday, shooting 6-11 including 2-5 on threes, for 14 points. She also grabbed five rebounds. Walker appears ready to be an integral part of the rotation immediately, and Auriemma was uncharacteristically complimentary of her.

“Megan’s really talented,” he said Sunday. “She’s got a lot of different kinds of skills. There are practices when she just flows into what we’re doing. She’s a lot stronger than what she looks, and she’s a lot quicker than what she looks.”

The next freshman into the game was Espinoza-Hunter – another energetic, tall, athletic guard. While active on defense, she seemed less court-aware than Walker, but did a good job of keeping in front of the player she guarded most of the time, and seemed comfortable on rotations. She, however, seemed a bit more reluctant to take her shot, and was just 1-5 on Sunday in 21 minutes of playing time. She will certainly see action in the second half of many UConn games, and as she settles in, will likely be a regular substitute.

The remaining freshmen are clearly not ready yet, in Auriemma’s book, and played sparingly even in these meaningless games over outmatched opponents.  Neither spent time on the floor with the starters. Coombs has the athleticism, but not the poise, shown by Walker and Espinoza-Hunter. She was more often in the wrong place on defense, and had more difficulty finding open shots. On the floor for just 12 minutes Sunday, she was active but deferential, and not particularly productive. She has the energy but not the confidence that she needs to join the regular rotation soon.

Gordon was the last player off the bench, playing just eleven fourth-quarter minutes in the two games combined. Physically, she is more substantial and a bit slower than the other freshmen, and was obviously less comfortable on the court at this early stage of her career. She played hard, and was often under the boards, showing decent rebounding instincts in the second game, when she grabbed three boards. She has a long way to go, and at this point, is unlikely to contribute.

Connecticut’s other newcomer, sophomore transfer Batouly Camara, remains in street clothes nursing a knee injury. While she is improving, there is no schedule for her return to the court.

These were, of course, exhibition games against Division II opponents, but perhaps a brief description of the game details is still appropriate. Fort Hays State from Hays, Kansas, was not the average exhibition team. They were fundamentally sound, and a great rebounding team. The Huskies were taller and more skilled, but the Tigers never looked overwhelmed, even as the point differential approached forty. They continued to run their offense and defend well in the half-court. They just could not handle the UConn fast break. To be fair, the Huskies did not play their best game, often looking stale despite the advantage of a summer tour playing in Italy. The final score of the Wednesday game was closer than many of UConn’s Division I victories last season: 82-37.

The second game, just four days later, was a revelation: UConn more than overwhelmed D-II National Champion Ashland (Ohio). The Huskies completely crushed the Eagles, scoring on their first four possessions, and finishing the first quarter leading 45-11. UConn played like a machine, exhibiting smothering defense, breakneck speed, and a diverse scoring inside, out and on the move. The first 10 minutes could be another team’s season highlight reel. In that stanza, UConn scored 28 points in the paint, 19 off turnovers, and shot 73 percent from the floor. They scored nearly one point per player-minute in the quarter. The second quarter was more of the same, and the Huskies entered the locker room with Samuelson 8-14 and Collier 8-10, each for 17 points. Nurse was 6-6, 4-4 from three, and Williams was also flawless offensively, hitting all four of her attempts. Dangerfield had five assists in the half, eight for the game.

Coming out of the locker room ahead 79-21, UConn looked more human, and Ashland more composed. Once the Husky starters got back in rhythm, however, Auriemma pulled all five of them for the duration, with his team ahead 90-29. The second team allowed Ashland to show why they won the national title, and the Eagles nearly matched their first half scoring in the third quarter.

The final score was 119-56, and UConn’s starters could have scored 150,they were that good. Sure these were D-II teams, but they were not terrible. Connecticut is truly frightening team for the rest of the basketball world. Probably.

“We’ll know a lot more after Sunday against Stanford,” Auriemma cautioned. “This non-conference season is not about playing weak mid-majors.”

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