UConn head coach Geno Auriemma described UCF’s team as gritty, disruptive and physical. But Sunday afternoon, it was the UConn women’s basketball team that was blocking shots, causing turnovers and even getting into a scuffle.
“The way we came out, I thought the energy that we played with and just the edginess that we played with, I thought that was a big factor,” Auriemma said of his team’s effort. “When you play like that, you have a tendency to be a little sharper on the offensive end when your defense is like that.”
Coming into the game, UCF (17-3, 6-1 AAC) had the top defense in the conference, giving up only 52.7 points per game. However, the Huskies surpassed that mark with 3:15 left in the first half after Napheesa Collier used her footwork to make an easy layup. As a team, UConn (18-1, 7-0 AAC) hit 71 percent of its shots in the first half, led by Collier’s 15 points in the half. The team would go on to dismantle the Knights 93-57.
“I don’t think Pheesa’s ever been to the training room for a band aid or anything,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think there is any blood in Pheesa, it’s just wires. She’s a machine, man. She just goes every single minute of every day, every practice, every drill. She just goes.”
Collier set the tone early, attacking the Knights in the paint with an offensive arsenal that included pump-fakes, step-backs and just pure physicality. The Huskies jumped out to an 8-0 lead only a minute and a half into the game, and right then and there, UConn had UCF on its heals.
“We wanted to make sure that we came out with the right attitude and UCF has been playing really well,” senior Katie Lou Samuelson said. “I think, since I have been here, I think it has been one of their best seasons so far. So, we wanted to make sure we didnt take them lightly and got off to a great start.”
Samuelson helped get the crowd going early, when she ran the length of the floor, caught a deep pass and was fouled underneath by Kayla Thigpen. The ball went in, the foul was called and the fans erupted. This gave UConn the 24-10 lead at the 3:25 mark to slow down a surging Knights team that had made its last 4-for-5 from the field.
This wasn’t the only play that Samuelson caused to help ignite the crowd of over 12,000. At the 1st half buzzer, Crystal Dangerfield inbounded the ball to Samuelson who tipped the ball back to her for the layup to end the half with UConn up 61-36.
UConn was able to feast on UCF in the paint, out rebounding them 43-31 and score 38 points in the paint. Dangerfield said the team had to focus on helping Collier down low and keep UCF’s leading rebounder Nyala Shuler outside the post.
“The perimeter is gonna have to be aware of everyone out there, but especially [Shuler],” Dangerfield said Saturday after practice. “We can’t just leave it up to Meg or Phee down there and Lou, when she gets down there. So, whoever is out there, the five that are out there, are going to have to do their job.”
Olivia Nelson-Ododa provided a nice spark for the Huskies on the defensive side during the 13 minutes she played. During the first two minutes of the second quarter, Nelson-Ododa blocked Diamond Battles shot attempt, dove for the ball and exchanged some words with Masseny Kaba, resulting in a double-technical. This was another example of UConn flexing its muscles throughout the game.
Sophomore Megan Walker lit up the stat sheet, recording her second double-double of the season with 21 points and 11 rebounds (career-high). Auriemma said he has told Walker to watch everything that Collier does in order to emulate her game. Sunday afternoon proved that Walker was listening.
“The biggest difference in Megan since the Baylor game, has been her effort,” Auriemma said. “I tell her, ‘just watch Pheesa. Everything Pheesa does, that’s what you need to do and you could never go wrong.’ Pheesa’s a machine. So, just do what Pheesa does.”
Auriemma said before the game that he was excited to see his team against UCF, but questioned his team’s ability to match UCF’s toughness. Walker said she thinks the team was able to show him that they could do it.
“I feel like we kind of proved to coach that we can be tough, we can be that aggressive team,” Walker said.
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.