Green typically symbolizes wealth and growth, but for UConn, it means anything but.
Colors aren’t the only thing that Oregon and Baylor have in common. Both have also taken down the Huskies on their home courts, and the parallels don’t stop there.
The No. 3 Ducks (20-2) beat No. 4 UConn (19-2) Monday night in a game that was similar, yet in some ways different from their game against No. 6 Baylor (19-1).
“We’re not in sync against the really, really good teams,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Every time we make a mistake, they take advantage of it. We have to play more of a flawless game.”
First of all, every team mentioned has at least 19 wins at this point in the season. Oregon and Baylor were also both top six teams when they came into Connecticut and took down Auriemma’s team.
Next, just look at the final scores. Both Baylor and Oregon scored 74 points on UConn, with the Huskies scoring 58 against the Bears and 56 on the Ducks.
Megan Walker, UConn’s leading scorer, shot dismal percentages against the green machines. She only made five of her 20 attempts against Baylor, and was under 20% with a 3-for-16 night versus the Ducks. She also had two turnovers and three assists in both contests.
“When two really good teams are playing, there’s a couple players on their team that have to play really well and make shots, and there’s a couple players on your team that have to play well and make shots. Theirs did tonight, and ours didn’t,” Auriemma said. “If Meg wants to be what I think she can be, she has to make those shots in these games.”
Believe it or not, the Huskies got the 3-ball working in both games, led by point guard Crystal Dangerfield. She led the team with four 3-pointers in both games. UConn attempted 26 3s in both games, making eight against the Bears and a solid 10 on the Ducks.
“If you would’ve told me we would give up 10 3s tonight and still win by the score we won by tonight, I’d say you’re crazy,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said.
Regardless of the adept 3-point shooting, whenever the Huskies scored, their opponents answered.
“The times that we play really good defense, we can’t get shots to drop,” Auriemma said. “Then when we can get some buckets, we can’t get stops on the other end.”
Like in the Baylor game, Oregon was able to operate with an unstoppable one-two punch of a ball handler and a big.
Baylor’s point guard Ta’e Cooper operated their offense. She had 27 points, six rebounds and five assists, albeit adding seven turnovers. Though Cooper led the team in scoring, it was the bigs Nalyssa Smith and Lauren Cox that made it all work. With Cooper feeding them on the block, Smith had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and Cox 16 points, six rebounds and four blocks.
“We couldn’t guard them in the lane,” Auriemma said after the Baylor game.
Here is where the games get different. As for Oregon, their main ball handler happens to be the best player in the country. Though Sabrina Ionescu finished with just 10 points in a game where the Ducks didn’t need her scoring, she also had nine rebounds and nine assists in a game where she was flat out unstoppable in the pick and roll.
“One of the most difficult things in basketball to defend is a really good post player who knows how to play, with a really good guard who knows how to play, and when the two of them are in the pick and roll and they both make the right decisions at the right time,” Auriemma said. “Like [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone.”
The pick and roll was the bread and butter of the Ducks’ offense. Ionescu would initiate the play behind the arc, then get a good, hard screen from Ruthy Hebard.
Hebard, who Auriemma described as “one hell of a player,” would roll off the screen on a strong yet deliberate dive to the rim and make UConn’s defenders make a choice.
They could either commit to Ionescu with the ball, Hebard cutting to the rim or switch on the screen and have a small player trying to stop Hebard on her way to the basket. Whenever UConn committed to Ionescu, she made the right read and hit Hebard with a perfect pass for an easy layup. When they committed to Hebard, Ionescu would drop in a floater in the lane. When they switched, Hebard ate alive whoever switched on to her and finished at the rim.
“Ruthy gets the shots she wants, knows how to get it, gets it as many times as she can and makes it,” Auriemma said. “Today she faced very little competition in the lane.”
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For as good as Hebard was, it was Ionescu who made the plays happen Monday night. According to Auriemma, some guards play too fast to let you make mistakes. But Ionescu plays patiently, under control and waits for the defense to make a mistake before making a calculated decision.
Though they found the points in different ways, both Baylor and Oregon killed the Huskies with points in the paint. Baylor had 32 last month, while Oregon scored a whopping 44 Monday night.
“They’re just too good, and their big kids are just too good,” Auriemma said. “We don’t have anybody at that level right now.”
For UConn to beat the best teams in the country, they need to figure out how to stop players from getting to the rim for easy buckets. They are young and undersized, so they rely heavily on the 6-foot-5 sophomore Nelson-Ododa and 6-foot-1 freshman Aubrey Griffin to protect the paint.
Neither player had particularly inspiring games against either team. Nelson-Ododa played herself off the floor against Baylor with 0-for-8 shooting in 23 minutes, and Griffin came in with an 0-for-2 effort. ONO didn’t do nearly as bad against Oregon with a 4-for-5 night, but was too slow to stop the pick and roll, resulting in just 24 minutes of playing time. Griffin shot 1-for-5 from the field, 1-for-4 from the stripe and turned the ball over three times in her 21 minutes.
If there is an answer for stopping teams from getting to the rim at will, it’s unclear if it is on this team.
“We need to be tougher,” Auriemma said. “We’re not big enough, so we have to be physically tougher.”
It won’t take long to see how the Huskies respond against another one of the country’s best teams. After their next game against Memphis on Friday, they will be on the road against No. 1 South Carolina (21-1). After an early loss to Indiana, the Gamecocks are on a 15-game win streak.
But hey, at least they don’t wear green.