UNCASVILLE — Coming off a career-high 10 points in 28 minutes in the Huskies’ 94-50 win over Colgate on Wednesday, freshman Napheesa Collier earned her first career start as the UConn women’s basketball team took on No. 11 Florida State at Mohegan Sun Arena as part of the Hall of Fame Classic.
“She plays hard, she’s a smart player and she has really good instincts,” UConn forward Morgan Tuck said of Collier. “She can play offensively, defensively, she can make the right play…it’s just fun seeing a freshman doing well.”
The O’Fallon, Missouri native made the most of her opportunity, taking Gabby Williams’ spot in the starting five and scoring six points and a team-high seven rebounds in 32 minutes in the Huskies’ 73-49 win over the Seminoles. Collier also added four steals, two blocks and two assists for the Huskies (8-0).
Williams finished the game with the most minutes for any bench player, adding four points and four rebounds in 18 minutes.
While Collier may have beat out Williams for the spot in the starting five, Auriemma was pleased by the combined production from the two of them, which totaled 10 points, 11 rebounds and six steals.
“You look at them as one player, that fifth spot in the lineup…If one player did that you’d say ‘Wow, that’s pretty good,’” Auriemma said of Collier and Williams performance.
Despite a short bench, the Huskies opened with a 6-0 run in the first quarter and never looked back. Florida State (7-2) wouldn’t get on the board until 3:25 into the game after a jump shot from Leticia Romero. The Huskies would finish the first quarter with a 22-14 lead, with all five starters playing the entire 10 minutes.
With Natalie Butler and Saniya Chong unavailable due to injury and Katie Lou Samuelson recovering from illness, the Huskies relied even heavier on their starters than they have earlier this season. All five starters played at least 32 minutes, and Williams was the lone bench player to play more than 10 minutes.
“You always want to have options, any time you have your options taken away from you, it’s a little bit dicey in how you’re going to do it,” Auriemma said of his depleted roster against the Seminoles. “Sometimes you just have to be ready to go 40 minutes. If you have to go you have to go.”
After scoring four points in the first quarter, Breanna Stewart’s first three-pointer of the day 48 seconds into the second quarter gave her 2,134 points, passing Rebecca Lobo for eighth place on UConn’s all-time scoring list. The senior forward would add three points in the fourth quarter to finish with 2,143 for her career, passing Kara Wolters and finishing the game in sole possession of seventh place. Stewart finished the night with 16 points, seven assists, six blocks, five rebounds and five steals.
Even with Stewart’s impressive achievements on the offensive end, her biggest impact on the game was through her defense on Seminoles center Adut Bulgak. Bulgak had no answer for Stewart’s length and athleticism all night, scoring a season-low five points on 2-11 shooting. Before taking on Stewart and the Huskies, the preseason All-American led Florida State in scoring, averaging 16.9 points per game.
Stewart paved the way for one of the Huskies’ best defensive performances in recent games. After giving up 13 threes each in wins over DePaul and Notre Dame and nine threes against Colgate, UConn held the Seminoles to just 3-9 shooting from beyond the arc and 37.9 percent overall from the field.
“That’s been our focus the last few days,” Tuck said of the team’s perimeter defense. “The coaches were really upset that we keep giving up so many threes, and we know down the line we can’t do that.”
Florida State finished the first half with four scoreless minutes, going 0-7 from the field in that span. Meanwhile, UConn would end the half on a 6-0 run to take a 37-23 lead into halftime.
Tuck and Kia Nurse led the way for the Huskies in the second half, scoring 19 of their combined 32 points to help UConn pull away from the Seminoles for good. Tuck would finish the night with a game-high 18 points on 8-12 shooting, including two three-pointers. Nurse joined Stewart and Moriah Jefferson in double figures with 14 points. Jefferson chipped in 15 points and four assists, finishing the night with 501 career assists.
Shakayla Thomas finished the game as Florida State’s only player in double figures with 16 points. Emilia Bingley and Romero added nine points each for the Seminoles, who were held to their lowest point total of the season.
With finals week approaching, the Huskies have officially wrapped up a 10-day four-game stretch with wins against three nationally-ranked teams. With so many players recovering from injuries and illness, Auriemma is proud of his team’s progress so far and looking forward to having a healthier team all-around when UConn returns to action against Louisiana State on Dec. 21.
“The streak that we’ve been through, we’ve seen just about everything that there is to see,” Auriemma said. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re ready for the NCAA tournament, but we experienced a lot of things in these eight games. I’m really happy with where we are as a team.”