Before their matchup against Louisiana State even started, the UConn women’s basketball team was dealt their biggest blow of the night as star forward Breanna Stewart would not be available after spraining her ankle in practice Saturday.
“You just want everybody to not go crazy, and think, ‘Well I have to replace to Stewie,’ that they just do a little bit more,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of Stewart’s absence. “Taking Stewie out of the lineup is like taking four players out. Our best inside player, our best high-post player against the zone, our best three-point shooter, and one of our best passers.”
Despite being without Stewart, the Huskies’ leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, the Huskies (9-0) continued their dominance this season with an 86-40 win over the Lady Tigers (6-6) for their 46th straight victory.
Without Stewart’s offensive presence, every UConn player chipped in to fill Stewart’s scoring void. Five Huskies scored in double figures for the third time this season. Moriah Jefferson led the way for UConn with 17 points, while Morgan Tuck and Katie Lou Samuelson added 14 points each. All nine players that saw action for the Huskies scored against the Lady Tigers.
“We can’t possibly look the same without [Stewart] in the lineup,” Auriemma said. “I thought Moriah was really really good tonight. And Tuck, who I would expect would be really good given the fact that Stewie didn’t play.”
Samuelson made her first career start in place of Stewart and struggled early before settling in and scoring nine points in the second half. After playing just three minutes against Florida State due to illness, Samuelson began to regain her shooting touch in the second half, making her first three-pointer since Dec. 5. On top of her 14 points, Samuelson added five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good passer and I’m going to try and keep getting people open,” Samuelson said. “Everyone I thought really contributed in different types of ways…We all had a lot of ways to score and just stepped up for that missing Stewie presence.”
Kia Nurse helped UConn get going early, scoring nine of her 11 points in the first quarter to help UConn get out in front early and give the Huskies an 18-6 lead.
After Rina Hill hit a jumper for LSU 13 seconds into the second quarter, the Huskies rattled off an 11-0 run spanning over six minutes to go up 29-8. The Lady Tigers would score again with 3:44 left in the half thanks to a layup from Akilah Bethel, and Hill would score four more of her team-high 10 points to finish out the half as the Lady Tigers finished the first half down 39-14.
LSU opened up scoring in the second half after Alexis Hyder hit two free throws 52 seconds into the third quarter. UConn would then go on another 11-0 run powered by two three-pointers from Jefferson and five points from Tuck. Jefferson finished the night shooting 3-7 from beyond the arc with seven assists.
“I knew I had to make a couple of threes and keep my team flowing and making sure everyone is getting the ball when they need it,” Jefferson said of playing without Stewart.
Sophomore Gabby Williams tacked on six points in the quarter and added four rebound in her second game coming off of the bench this season. Williams’ 13 points marked the 23rd time in her career she’s scored double figures.
“A lot of good things happened when she came into the game, as I want it to be when she comes off the bench,” Auriemma said of Williams.
The Huskies capped off a stellar defensive effort with a strong fourth quarter, outscoring the Lady Tigers 23-14 to seal the victory. LSU’s 40 points were the second lowest total the Huskies have held an opponent to this season, and the lowest since holding Chattanooga to 31 points on Nov. 30
“They’re not a great three-point shooting team, so it allowed us to defend them a certain way,” Auriemma said. “I thought our defensive effort was great, we made a lot of extra effort plays.”
Napheesa Collier spearheaded the defensive effort for UConn, stepping up to fill the rebounding and defensive void Stewart’s absence left. The freshman tied a career-high with a team-leading 12 rebounds and added six blocks, four steals and seven points in her second-career start.
“She’s moving so much that she finds herself in the right spot more times than not, and that’s on both ends,” Auriemma said of Collier. “We have to encourage her to be more offensive minded, because she can be.”
Collier and the rest of the team will head home for the holidays before returning to practice on Dec. 26th. With the long break, Auriemma expects Stewart to be ready to go as the Huskies take on Maryland Dec. 28th at Madison Square Garden in the Maggie Dixon Classic.
“She landed on Tierney Lawlor’s foot coming down from a jump shot, nothing real bad,” Auriemma said of Stewart’s injury. “I would expect that she’ll be back to normal [in a week]. She better be.”