UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma gave his starters a little bit more rest than usual on Thursday as they took on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, but the Huskies’ young bench players failed to step up on the way to a 78-60 victory.
Returning home to Gampel Pavilion after a two-game road stretch in Texas, Auriemma decided before the game that he would keep some of his starters’ minutes down. Crystal Dangerfield was limited to 15 minutes in the game, as was Katie Lou Samuelson, who turned her ankle just five minutes into the third quarter.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if (Samuelson) doesn’t play on Sunday (against Temple), but we’ll know more tomorrow,” Auriemma said.
The changes to the rotation gave the UConn reserves another opportunity to prove themselves for an extended period of time early in the game. An opportunity they squandered with a low-effort, unacceptable performance by UConn standards.
“It doesn’t bother me anymore. I see this every day in practice. I’m beyond bothered,” Auriemma said of the disappointing effort. “I see it every single day. Some days we just hide it better than others. And you know what? Give Tulsa all the credit in the world. They made shots. They were able to take the ball where they wanted to take it. We won because we have All-Americans and they don’t. That’s the bottom line.”
The Huskies’ usual starters played the entire first quarter and got UConn off to their standard hot start. Napheesa Collier, a junior forward, had 10 points by the end of the first period, ultimately finishing with 19 points on 9-18 shooting. Senior guard Kia Nurse was lights out from 3-point range, finishing 5-7 from beyond the arc on the way to a 17-point performance.
The reserves then got their chance to shine when Auriemma made a platoon swap to start the second quarter. As usual, Azurá Stevens made her presence felt offensively from the moment she stepped on the floor. The redshirt junior transfer from Duke finished with a game-high 22 points on 9-11 shooting in just 15 minutes.
Defensively, Stevens continued to frustrate her head coach. Auriemma has preached throughout the season that her potential is through the roof – something she has put on display with consistently good efforts on the offensive end. Yet time and time again, the six-foot-six stretch forward will find herself out of position defensively to allow easy buckets. Thursday night was no different.
“We might go from a six (player rotation) to five instead of six to seven or eight,” Auriemma said of his minutes distribution going forward. “I mean you can’t give up more layups than (Stevens) gives up. That’s not possible. It’s not possible. It’s mind-boggling. I wish I could explain it, but I can’t. I can’t. I don’t have any explanation for it.”
UConn’s other bench players didn’t fare as well in their extended run. Freshmen Megan Walker, Mikayla Coombs and Lexi Gordon combined for just four points on 0-8 shooting in a total of 39 minutes. Sophomores Kyla Irwin and Molly Bent added three points on 1-6 shooting in 30 combined minutes.
“The guys that don’t play much? There’s a reason they don’t play much,” Auriemma said of his bench players. "And if I could have it my way, we would give every person at the game tonight their money back. That was the most disgraceful effort I’ve seen at Connecticut in 32 years that I’ve been here.”
“I’ll keep giving (the reserves) chances. I mean we need a lot more close games,” Auriemma said. “So I’ll give them as much time as they need to see. I’m trying to save them from themselves. This is what they do every day in practice, and I’m trying not to expose them on the court. So I’m actually trying to help them.”
When asked if there were any positives to take away from the game, Auriemma had just one on his mind, if any.
“It ended. It didn’t go into overtime. God knows we didn’t need to watch five more minutes of that,” Auriemma said. “Not really. I gotta tell ya. I really don’t know that there was one positive that came out of tonight. I can’t think of any.”
The Huskies will get their next chance to put in a positive performance Sunday afternoon on the road at Temple.