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UConn Women's Basketball 2019-2020 Ohio State Geno Auriemma Mark Donahue Dorka Juhasz

They’re Not Perfect, But They’re Still Geno’s UConn

UConn fans have likely come to terms with the fact they’re dealing with more unknowns this year than they’ve had since the gap year between Maya Moore’s graduation and the arrival of Breanna Stewart. It seemed a new era had arrived when Megan Walker came to campus two years ago as the top recruit in the country. Expected to make an immediate impact, Walker’s freshman year produced lackluster results in the face of expectations only UConn can set. Her sophomore campaign last season was a significant step up, scoring double digits in 25 of the 36 games she started.

Yet, those numbers are still just common contributions for the Huskies. Now, the current team is without star power. Katie Lou and Napheesa have moved on. It’s Walker’s turn to shoulder the weight. If she doesn’t, can they carry on?

The challenge is an exciting one for the legendary Coach Geno Auriemma to figure out. Now in his 35th season, Auriemma is on the hunt for the 12th national title for himself and the Huskies. When speaking to the press after a 73-62 win at Ohio State on Nov. 24, he had to admit it was fun to coach teams with superstar talent, but there’s an equal place in his heart for earning victories a different way.

“I know how hard it is to make it work,” Auriemma commented on his 2019-2020 roster. “We don’t have the same level of talent we used to have. We don’t have the same depth we used to have. We don’t have the level of experience we used to have. It’s all brand new. When it goes according to plan, it’s a great feeling. The only problem is, the other feeling is there a lot too, when it looks horrible like we’ve never practiced before. That I’m not used to. I’m experiencing two things I haven’t experienced in a long time.”

It would be hard to even imagine a Final Four without UConn occupying one of the four prongs on the bracket. In fact, the only three years without them in the new millennium stretched from ’04 to ’07, with 12-straight appearances since. At 6-0, they’re clearly on the right track, but the first signs of imperfections started to show through during their road trip to Columbus for an afternoon showdown with the Buckeyes.

At halftime, the Huskies only led their unranked hosts by two, only pulling away late in the game when Ohio State lost all ability to score when it needed to. Although the results favored the Huskies, 73-62, size mismatches could have been a detrimental Achilles heel. Not only did the Buckeyes tower in the paint with two scoring posts in 6-foot-3 Aaliyah Patty and 6-foot-4 Dorka Juhasz, but the pair were equally apart of the flurry of shots UConn was facing behind the arc. In total, Ohio State launched a season-high 30 three pointers, but because it only hit nine of them, UConn survived the attack.

It was only last postseason that Walker showed she has the ability to step up, filling huge minutes in the conference tournament after Samuelson was forced to rest with back troubles. She had her chance for a breakout this year against the Buckeyes but only left 19 points and eight rebounds on the court, a decent statline but not quite as gaudy as expected and third in production for the Huskies. Walker followed up with a double-double in conference against Dayton on 23 points and 12 defensive boards, but it was hardly the same test she faced in the Ohio State defense.

So, again the question is, if Walker doesn’t rise above the crowd, does Connecticut have the depth and consistency to make it to New Orleans?

Powerful rebounding is coming through sophomore Olivia Nelson-Ododa, grabbing an average over 10 per game. She’s over 10 a contest in scoring, too, and the block totals keep rising, so that’s a check. Christyn Williams been a staple since starting her first game as a freshman and hasn’t looked back. Williams is good for 20 on any given night, and she’s been comfortable launching the deep ball. If she can get her three-point average above 32 percent, that’s a whole new mess for teams to deal with.

One constant is the production of senior Crystal Dangerfield. If you look at her numbers across the board, it’s almost a mirror reflection of the game before: 13.4 points per night on 41.4 percent shooting from the field, plus only one miss at the charity stripe and a couple steals a game. She’s the best the team can ask for in its 5-foot-5 point guard.

Outside of Walker and the aforementioned trio, it’s anyone’s guess.

The staff demands all five bodies on the court to be active playmakers, and so far, senior Kyla Irwin isn’t answering the call. Some of her minutes are trickling over to Polish freshman Anna Makurat, who already has a few flashes of brilliance under her belt, including 10 points and eight rebounds against Virginia in 29 minutes. Yet, Makurat proved inexperienced in the Ohio State challenge, with only a solo rebound to show for 14 minutes. So, there are four starters carrying nearly equal burdens and a balancing scale between a senior and freshman on who can make a real contribution on any given night.

The UConn bench looks on at the action in the team’s Nov. 24 date at Ohio State, ending in a 73-62 triumph. (Nothing But Nylon/Mark Donahue)

At Ohio State, their first real test of the year, the Huskies were faced with a tall order. Ohio State used their height inside and out to constantly disrupt the team’s defense. Without any real size aside from Nelson-Ododa, Connecticut didn’t appear to have a team built for facing big bodies. UConn has plenty of talent but was absolutely lucky that the Buckeyes’ tank ran dry and it was only then we got to see the Huskies make score-separating plays. Auriemma made it clear he’s not playing with a stacked deck like he became accustom to, but with the way he holds his cards, it’s hard to tell what he thinks of his new hand.

“It’s about when and not how many,” Auriemma explained after the Ohio State win. “When you get a rebound, when you make the right play, when you make your free throws, when you get a block. It’s what teams have to find out on the road. We had to find out when we are in a game that is really a losable game, what are we going to do to make winning plays? And [tonight] we made a bunch of them.”

One thing is for certain: his team has done enough to sit undefeated through the first month of college hoops. Don’t get me wrong, the Huskies are winning every game by double digits. It’s going to be hard to even find anyone to test them in the AAC. But, with a powerhouse South Carolina squad and massive rival Notre Dame still on the out-of-conference docket, we will see the true colors of this unit soon enough.

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