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UConn Gets Contributions Beyond The Big Three In Win Over Cincinnati. By Rich Elliott.

POSTED February 17, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – There is virtually no doubt that Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck are the top trio on any women’s basketball team in the nation.

Stewart is the reigning two-time National Player of the Year. Jefferson earned All-American honors last season. Tuck is weeks away from officially becoming an All-American. And, together, they had accounted for 47.6 points and 53.6 percent of the scoring through the first 24 games for No. 1 UConn.

It has been far too easy for many of their teammates to stand in the background rather than trying to make a play on their own. Huskies’ coach Geno Auriemma flipped the script in Wednesday’s 88-34 win over Cincinnati at Gampel Pavilion by sitting Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck to start the game.

Instead, he opted to open with junior Saniya Chong, freshman Napheesa Collier and red-shirt sophomore Natalie Butler alongside customary starters Kia Nurse and Katie Lou Samuelson. It was the first start this season for Butler, the third for Chong and the ninth for Collier.

``It’s something that we’ve been talking about for the last couple weeks, really, about we need to get some of these guys more of an ownership into what’s going on,’’ Auriemma said. ``Because I think if you’re not careful when you have three dominant players like we do there’s a tendency for kids to just kind of defer all the time and say, `Well, yeah, when I come in we’ll already be up 25. So there’s no pressure on me and I don’t have to worry and whether I play well or don’t play well we’re still going to win by a lot.’ So what we tried to do is say, `OK, let’s see if we change the environment that we put you in see how you do.’’

As expected, the experiment was met with varying results. The game was tied 15-15 when Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck entered the game with Courtney Ekmark and Gabby Williams with 3:26 left in the first quarter.

Auriemma played 10 players in the quarter, which ended with UConn leading 25-19.

``It was what I thought it would be,’’ Auriemma said. ``I thought that we wouldn’t have a lot of problems getting shots. I thought we’d have some problems guarding them because the five people that we had out on the floor none of them for the most part – Kia Nurse maybe a little bit – are guarding (South Florida star) Courtney Williams a week from Monday. So we knew we’d struggle a little bit on the defensive end. And I wasn’t happy about that and we let them know about it. But it’s good for them to see that. That when you get into the game and you’re up 30 it doesn’t matter whether you play good defense or not in their minds. But when it’s 15-15 it matters.’’

The Huskies (25-0, 14-0 AAC) outscored the Bearcats 63-15 over the final three quarters en route to their 62nd straight win. And several players not named Jefferson, Stewart or Tuck made an impact.

Butler delivered 14 points (7-for-9 FG), a season-high 10 rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes. Collier contributed 11 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 22 minutes, while Williams had eight points, four rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes.

“I think the very end of the season is very crucial,’’ Butler said. ``Obviously, you don’t want to put so much pressure on yourself to where it’s `Oh my God,’ but you have to realize every day is an opportunity to get better. Next year we’re not going to have the three seniors. How do you step up and fill certain positions? There’s no more hiding on the bench. You have to step up and perform.’’

The Big Three did their part too. Stewart finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks in 21 minutes. Jefferson had 11 points, three assists and two blocks in 23 minutes. Tuck added eight points and six rebounds in 11 minutes.

Stewart thoroughly believes that Auriemma’s lineup change proved to be beneficial.

``I think it was for a good reason and what our bench players and young guys got out of it was a lot more than we could’ve done in any other way,’’ Stewart said. ``I think you know that it will make a difference. And any time you’re going into the game, especially if some of them started in their first game or haven’t started in a while or that lineup has never started in a game before there’s a little extra chip on their shoulder. They want to make sure they come out and are really focused. And the big thing is not only for this game, but every single game we have left.’’

UConn has now had at least 25 wins in 23 straight seasons dating back to an 18-11 finish in 1992-93.

The Huskies are going to need contributions in the postseason from players beyond Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck as they embark on their quest for an NCAA-record fourth straight national championship next month. This takes an understanding of their respective role and willingness to impose themselves on the game. This a process that remains a work-in-progress.

``I think that they’re starting to understand,’’ Stewart said. ``I don’t think it’s going to happen, obviously, overnight. But a lot of them haven’t played in the postseason because they just haven’t been here or they’re playing bigger roles than they did last year. And each year you come here you want to get better. You want to step up and take on a bigger role, put more pressure on yourself to do more in games, expect more from yourself. And I think that’s where we’re at right now.’’

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