HARTFORD – It wasn’t the best of performances for the UConn women’s basketball team in their first game since losing in the Final Four, but the Huskies and standout transfer Azurá Stevens still came away with a big 82-37 win over the Fort Hays St. Tigers Wednesday night at the XL Center.
Showcasing a new and reloaded roster against the Tigers, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma went deep into his bench in the Huskies’ first appearance of the season, an exhibition against a Division II school in Fort Hays St.
The usual suspects of Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Kia Nurse led the way in terms of minute distribution, but it was Stevens who really stood out Wednesday night. And she stood out in a big way in fairly limited minutes.
Stevens finished with 15 points on 7-14 shooting from the field, along with seven rebounds, three assists and four blocks in just 16 minutes on the court. Her performance stretched far beyond the stat sheet, however, as her presence and length in the paint was menacing.
“(Stevens) just gives us a different presence at both ends of the floor, on defense and offense, and we saw a little bit of everything today,” Auriemma said. “Handling the ball a little bit, posting up a little bit, blocking a couple shots. I’m happy for her…I think she’s gonna be really, really good for us.”
The first to come off the bench in Auriemma’s rotation, Stevens immediately made a big impact on both ends of the court. She easily overpowered the Tigers defenders with her 6-foot-6 frame on offense, and those Fort Hays St. players who foolishly attacked the paint were overwhelmed with her length.
“I think (my length) definitely (helps),” Stevens said. “Trying to get deflections, blocks, of course, and just even altering people when they’re thinking of making a pass. If they see a hand in the way, they’re gonna second guess, and so it kind of slows down their offense.”
Stevens possesses the kind of length and talent in the post that the Huskies lacked last season. They had Natalie Butler, but Butler didn’t have the same kind of talent that Stevens displayed Wednesday night. But since she’s not the prototypical post player, Auriemma said it’s much easier for her to gel with the offense.
“Z (Stevens) is just so…comfortable to play with ‘cause she doesn’t stand around and clog things up,” Auriemma said. “She knows how to move without the ball. She stretches the defense. You could just stand her outside the three-point line the whole game and she would be a big help, even if she didn’t shoot it.”
It’s that key aspect of Stevens’ game–her ability to handle the ball and shoot from deep–that makes her especially unique for her size. She struggled from the three-point line today, missing all four of her attempts from beyond the arc, but her range was vital in the Huskies’ spacing around the court. The added threat of Stevens being able to hit a shot from deep is enough to put off a defense and allow for a more fluid offense.
“It’s a different look than we had last season and (Stevens) is certainly gonna be difficult for teams to handle,” Auriemma said. “’Cause you don’t have a lot of players around the country that can be that way around the basket and then go out and make a shot from the three-point line. And she’s so mobile.”
Stevens also combined well with sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield in pick-and-roll situations. Her size gave Dangerfield an easy target to find time and time again, which could make for a dangerous duo as their chemistry develops throughout the year.
“For sure, (Stevens) is a matchup problem anywhere we put her on the floor and she did great tonight,” Dangerfield said. “I’m excited to see how much more she matures this year.”
Stewie speaks out
Former UConn women’s basketball star Breanna Stewart joined the “#MeToo” campaign, bringing awareness to sexual harassment, by sharing her story on The Players’ Tribune Monday morning.
Stewart’s story was another powerful, moving piece that has allowed the #MeToo movement to grow. She revealed she had been molested for years by a family member at nine years old, before eventually telling her parents so the man could not bother her any further.
“You know you don’t really get the full picture, you don’t really get the whole gist of everything until you read it,” Auriemma said after the game when asked about Stewart’s piece. “Then, when you read it, it’s different. It’s pretty powerful and it’s not easy, couldn’t have been (easy).”
Stewart concluded her story by saying that help is there, stressing how important it is to tell people close to you until the problem is fixed.
“Stewie’s grown up a lot in the last couple of years…kind of on her own. I think she finally felt like a grown up and could talk about something that was very, very, very personal…I’m proud of her, she’s grown up a lot and she’s gonna be okay. She’s gonna be okay. She’s gonna be better than okay,” Auriemma said.
The Huskies have one more tune-up game to play before the regular season begins, as they will take on Ashland University at Gampel Pavilion Sunday at 1 p.m.