HARTFORD — For the first time in 129 games, the UConn women’s basketball team was without star point guard Moriah Jefferson, who sat out the Huskies’ home conference opener against Tulsa due to a hamstring injury.
With Jefferson out of the starting lineup, Saniya Chong filled in admirably for the senior point guard, scoring a season-high 18 points in UConn’s 95-35 victory over the Golden Hurricane (5-8, 201 the American) at the XL Center for the Huskies’ 49th-straight win.
“It’s not easy to come out and play when you haven’t practiced a lot this year and you haven’t played a lot of game minutes,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of Chong.
Chong also added four rebounds and in Jefferson’s absence, dishing out four assists and only one turnover.
Chong, after being hampered with an IT band injury in the early part of the season, has played in three straight games and has been one of UConn’s most reliable three point shooters in that span, shooting 57 percent (8-14) from beyond the arc.
“When you score that many points in high school like she did, scoring is not an issue,” Auriemma said of Chong, who scored 2,988 points in her four years at Ossining High School in New York. “It’s good that in addition to that she’s trying to do some other things on the other end of the floor, which we need her to do to help our team.”
Morgan Tuck led the way for the Huskies (12-0, 2-0 the American) in the beginning, scoring 12 points in the first quarter to help the Huskies get out to a 24-6 lead. The redshirt junior would finish the night tied with Chong with a game-high 18 points, 16 of which came in the first half.
“I knew that we needed to have a good start,” Tuck said. “Today we had a big advantage on the inside, so even with [Moriah] out everyone I think saw that and we were able to get the ball inside… I just try to make sure when I get the ball inside I finish every layup.”
The Huskies extended their lead even further in the second quarter, holding Tulsa without a basket until Erika Wakefield hit a jumper with 8:24 in the half. Wakefield’s jumper snapped a scoreless drought for the Golden Hurricane that spanned nearly seven minutes dating back to the first quarter.
UConn continued to pull away with six points in under 30 seconds to take a 35-10 lead with 6:53 left in the first half partially thanks to back-to-back steals from Chong and Napheesa Collier.
Collier finished the game as one of five Huskies in double figures with 11 points and eight rebounds. Breanna Stewart (12 points) and Katie Lou Samuelson (14 points) joined Collier, Chong and Tuck in double figures.
After playing sparingly against Cincinnati, Samuelson put together her best performance yet as a Husky, shooting 4-of-6 from the three-point line and adding four rebounds and five assists. The highly-touted freshman showed flashes of her ability to impact the game on both ends and looked comfortable shooting within the flow of the offense.
“She did a whole bunch of things other than just being a shooter, and because of that, she made a bunch of shots,” Auriemma said of Samuelson. “Everybody has their comfort level that they need to get to when they’re on the floor, and slowly but surely she’s getting there. When you’re as good as she is, it’s just a matter of time.”
After heading into halftime with a 49-18 lead, the Huskies continued their dominant defensive performance, holding Tulsa to just 17 second-half points. The Golden Hurricane failed to get on the board in the second half until a Kelsey Grovey layup with 4:33 left in the third quarter ended a scoreless drought that lasted 8:28.
The 35 points for Tulsa were the lowest total the team has scored all season. Ashley Clark led the Golden Hurricane with 10 points, while Liesl Spoerl finished second with six points on 3-7 shooting.
Even without Jefferson, one of the team’s best perimeter defenders, the Huskies put together their best defensive performance of the season, holding Tulsa to 27 percent shooting from the field and only two free throw attempts. The Golden Hurricane also shot just 12 percent from the three-point line, the lowest percentage the Huskies have held an opponent to all season.
While UConn had struggled defending the three early in the season, the team has held their opponents to under 40 percent from beyond the arc in four straight games.
“We’re the kind of team that when we put our mind to it, there is very little that we can’t accomplish,” Auriemma said. “Today, the focus was no free throws and no threes and we got both of those things done.”