Huskies survive early scare, beat No. 14 Texas, 72-54. No. 1 Notre Dame up next.
UNCASVILLE: It’s not a five-minute span that any University of Connecticut player is going to look back on with fond memories.
On Sunday against the No. 14 ranked Texas Longhorns, the Huskies were having done to them what they usually do to others as they jumped out to a 12-6 lead with 4:45 left in the first quarter.
They were being beat up on the boards, their opponent was just a step faster with hands that were just a bit quicker, and when head coach Geno Auriemma talked to his team during the first media time out, he had a message for them, designed to put their minds at ease.
“I pulled out probably my best 30-second time out speech that I save for special occasions,” Auriemma said. “When they came over I said, ‘you guys can take a deep breath, this game is over. You don’t have to worry about anything. This happened for five minutes and it’s going to keep happening for the next 35 minutes so don’t worry about it.' I thought this was how it was going to go, the whole game. They were just going to overwhelm us with all that size and athletic ability.”
The message was heard loud and clear by a young team still struggling to find out just what kind of team they are going to be. The No. 2 ranked team in the land did respond in out-working and out-toughing the Longhorns over the next three quarters in an eventual 72-54 win.
The win, their 82 in a row, comes three days before the game of the year (to date) on the road against the top ranked team, Notre Dame on Wednesday night.
Texas was the second team UConn has played so far this year that had size and numbers (Baylor being the first), running 11 players in and out on a Huskies team that played just seven for most of the game.
The play of Naphessa Collier (24 points, eight rebounds, five steals and two blocks), combined with key contributions from Kia Nurse (15 points) and Gabby Williams (11 points, six assists and four steals) was enough to eventually get the now 7-0 Huskies over the top of a big, physical team.
Not much went right for UConn early as the Longhorns dominated the glass early (14-5 in the first quarter) and got six points from 6’5” senior Kelsey Lang in building the lead.
“They were tough and they were active,” Auriemma said. “It seemed like we were playing five against seven. I told them one time that this was like a college team playing a high school team right now. But, once we settled in and got the ball moving a little bit, people stepped up and made some shots.”
There have been games this season that at first glance looked like games that would end the streak; this one had all those earmarks.
Texas has gotten rather tired of the Huskies beating them up as they have in the postseason the past two years and appeared to be on a mission to bust it and the Huskies head coach knew it.
“It was a scare those first five minutes,” Auriemma said. “I think our guys were stunned when the game started. You take these five minutes and the first five minutes on Thursday (when the Huskies jumped out to a 19-1 lead over DePaul), quite a difference.”
Not much was working for UConn inside until Natalie Butler was able to neutralize Lang to some extent while the offense got a boost from freshman Crystal Dangerfield who followed a Williams put back off an offensive rebound with a long three pointer.
By the end of the opening frame, the deficit was just two at 17-15, a fortunate score considering how things began.
In the second quarter, Auriemma went a lineup that did not include one of the offensive leaders of the team, Katie Lou Samuelson who had a forgettable six minutes that included three turnovers and a pair of fouls, one a flagrant that resulted in a pair of made free throws by Ariel Atkins.
Atkins, one of the leaders for the Longhorns, played just six minutes and spent the rest of the game on the bench after taking a blow to the head.
As she did against DePaul, Kia Nurse came up on the offensive end by scoring the first seven points of the second quarter to give UConn their first lead of the game.
UConn built a nine pOint lead at the half at 39-30, but Texas refused to go away, coming back to within two at 51-49 with 3:18 to go in the third after a three pointer by Brooke McCarty (team high 15 points).
Texas turned the ball over 26 times, resulting in 35 points for the Huskies and a pair of giveaways allowed the lead to go back up to eight at 57-49.
A strong final quarter (15-5) sealed the game for UConn but it certainly wasn’t easy.
This was a great test for a team still looking to find out just who they are at this point and what they will be down the road.
“It’s really, really hard to put a label on this team,” Auriemma said. “They just seem to do what they need to do, that’s what it appears to me right now. We don’t appear to be the kind of team that just goes in there and imposes their will on the other team, like we have been doing the last couple of years. We’re more of an ‘alright, what do we have to do today?’ and let’s figure it out and let’s do it. It’s a little bit frustrating from a coach’s standpoint at times. We seem to find someone each game that kind of gets it going for us. In the Baylor game is was Crystal (Dangerfield), in the Florida State game it was Napheesa (Collier) and again today it was Napheesa (Collier) and then Kia (Nurse) the other night and Lou (Katie Lou Samuelson) in the second half tonight. So somebody seems to recognize that this is what we need to do right now and they do it. That’s some of the nice things about the teams we have been playing. That we have to play that way and that we have to step up and I think we did in a tough game. I was really proud of them.”
Folding up their tent after that brutal start might have occurred with a team without strong willed players who have adapted a bit of a chip on their shoulders after losing the “Big Three” a year ago but one player who has a pair of championship rings doesn’t really buy into the fact that they may give in when things get tough.
“I think a lot of people are expecting us to,” Williams said. “We want to prove it to them and we want to prove it to ourselves. That we can come back, that we can fight just as hard.