Photos by Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus
1995 sparked the beginning of the historic UConn versus Tennessee women’s basketball rivalry. A dozen years later, the two school ceased competition with each other. Another dozen years later and the Huskies resumed play with the Volunteers.
No. 3 UConn (17-1) beat No. 23 Tennessee (15-4) Thursday night at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut 60-45 in what appeared to be their best complete game of basketball we’ve seen so far this season, and they weren’t even making a lot of their shots.
“It was a struggle,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “All you can do is keep shooting them. I thought in the third quarter, we changed up a couple of the things we were doing and we ended up scoring more off of our defense than we did in the first half.”
Despite shooting just 32% as a team, the Huskies forced a whopping 27 turnovers with 17 steals. They were also able to gain extra possessions on the offensive glass, grabbing 17 rebounds on that end of the floor. The turnovers and rebounding gave the Huskies 73 shot attempts in the game compared to just 56 for Tennessee.
“Generally speaking, every time we play a good team we’re undersized, so we have to work a little bit harder, be smarter, be at the right place at the right time and make all of the hustle plays,” Auriemma said. “I think we got every loose ball in the second half.”
“You’re not going to win big games and beat good teams with 27 turnovers.” Tennessee’s head coach Kellie Harper said. “They came out with a different intensity in the second half. They crashed the boards really hard in that third quarter.”
The second half is where the Huskies turned the game around. They went into halftime trailing by three, then stuck with a smaller lineup of Crystal Dangerfield, Christyn Williams, Megan Walker, Anna Makurat and Aubrey Griffin. None of those five players are over 6-foot-1 inches, with Walker the only one listed as a forward. All of Tennessee’s starters are 6-foot-1-inch or taller.
That small lineup was able to generate turnovers, run the fast break and draw a lot of fouls. UConn scored 21 of their 60 points on the fast break. They essentially ran Tennessee out of the XL Center, and forced their 6-foot-5-inch center Tamari Key to foul out. After scoring 31 in the first half, Tennessee was held to just 14 points in the second.
Late in the third quarter, the 6-foot-5-inch Olivia Nelson-Ododa returned to the floor in Griffin’s place and found the groove that eluded her in the first half.
“I just tried to contribute as much as possible,” Nelson-Ododa said. “I tried to go in, keep that same fight that the team had to start the third quarter and tried as much as possible to keep that on.”
After going 0-for-2 in nine minutes in the first half, Nelson-Ododa scored 10 points in the final 13 minutes of the game, shooting 3-for-6 from the field and making four free throws.
But in that time that UConn’s big was off of the floor, Griffin imposed her will on the game and became the x-factor. The long, uber-athletic freshman made the most of her 23 minutes by scoring 13 points, grabbing five offensive rebounds and stealing the ball five times.
“We said, ‘If they’re not going to guard you [Griffin], then every time you screen for somebody, there’s nobody there to help,’” Auriemma said. “‘So tonight, the whole second half, you are a screener. Screen, and go offensive rebound. When we’re on defense, trap everything that comes near you.’”
Griffin set that tone on defense that the Huskies needed. Though all five players were swarming the court, Griffin seemed to have her hands on the ball every play.
“[Griffin] was the game changer for us. She was exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it,” Dangerfield said.
Griffin stepped up in a big way on a night that UConn really needed her to. The team’s three best scorers, Walker, Williams and Dangerfield, shot a combined 13-for-59 from the field and 3-for-13 from beyond the arc. The trio that UConn typically relies on to score had just 32 points. So Geno’s solution was to win the game on the other end.
“I’ve always said, ‘How many shots you make should only determine how much you win by, not whether you win or not.’ You can still win games without making a lot of shots,” Auriemma said. “You can shoot lousy and still win a game. You just have to be willing to do all of the other stuff. I think Christyn and Megan did that.”
Auriemma and company are sure to be stoked by the great performance by Griffin, especially following a 21-point game by her fellow freshman Makurat. Getting production from those two players will be important to UConn’s success come tourney-time when they can’t lean heavily on their stars.
UConn’s next challenge will come on the road, as they travel down to North Carolina to play ECU. That game will tip off Saturday at 1 p.m.