A night of good signs for Huskies
HARTFORD - With just four regular season games left `tis the season for signs that may dictate the post-season fortunes for the UConn women’s basketball team. Virtually all the signs were good ones Wednesday night in a 74-31 toasting of Tulane in front of 8,446 fans at the XL Center.
In clinching a tie for its seventh straight American Athletic Conference title while reeling off its 132nd league win a row (including post-season tournament) without a loss, the No. 6 Huskies offered up another solid picture of the continuing emergence of Anna Makurat, a lockdown defense and improved play from 6-foot-5 center Oliva Nelson-Ododa.
Makurat put in an all-around night with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with six steals, five rebounds and five assists. The performance was a welcome highlight after slumping in recent weeks. It didn’t hurt that she hit three of her first four shots, including two three-pointers.
“I don’t know if it was my best game, but I really tried to be aggressive and just step up after a few bad games and just help the team,” said Makurat. “I just tried to do whatever I could to help the team with my rebounding, defense and assists to make the team better. When you make shots everything seems easier. The decisions are easier. Then the defenders guard you and if you make shots you can just go by them or make a pass. “
The performance came on the heels of a little confidence-boosting talk with coach Geno Auriemma on Tuesday where he told her to stop worrying herself about what happens in the past.
“I was especially happy when she started knocking down shots early and her confidence, you could see it, she couldn’t wait to shoot it,” said Auriemma.”
Makurat’s eight first quarter points and an 8-0 run to end the first quarter allowed the Huskies to break an 11-11 tie and take a 19-13 first quarter lead. From there on in the defense was in charge.
With a swarming demeanor UConn held the Green Waves to just 18 points over the final three quarters (8-5-5) and just 10 points in the second half. Tulane shot 11.5 percent in the second half (4-for-35). The Huskies also caused 24 turnovers leading to 31 points. In a season where the offense has stuttered at times, weaponizing the other end of the floor will be a must come tournament time.
“Coach mentioned at the end of the first quarter (Tulane) is not allowed to have 13 points so that was one of our goals the rest of the game. So we limited them each quarter and converted on the offensive end,’ said Megan Walker who tied up Tulane’s leading scorer Krystal Freeman (7 points) while scoring 18 points herself. “I can feel (the defense) getting better. I think that everyone is paying attention to detail and everyone is helping each other. So we are all helping the helper. I feel like our transition defense has been getting better too. “
UConn was also buoyed by the effort from Nelson-Ododa who posted an 11-point-10 rebound performance and was a prickly presence in the middle at both ends of the floor for Tulane to deal with.
“There was no one on the floor that could handle Liv so the strategy was Liv run as fast as you can to the block, post up and you guys had better throw it to her,” said Auriemma. “You get it throw it to Liv, the old Kara Wolters offense, throw it to Liv. Liv is getting better every day, every day in practice and every day.”
Throw it all together and the Huskies had built up a 44-21 halftime advantage and then outscored the Green Wave, 30-10 in the final 20 minutes with a heavy dose of bench play on the agenda.
There are still issues with the Huskies. Christyn Williams is still struggling prompting Auriemma to concede she is not at the level need for UConn to be considered an elite team. There is always tinkering and honing that needs to be done on the defensive end.
It is not a perfect UConn world, but the signs said it is looking better.