It’s the seventh and final year in the American Athletic Conference for UConn, and at this point, what do the blowout wins even mean anymore? In the seven years the Huskies have spent as a part of this conference, they have lost a grand total of two games. Just kidding, they haven’t lost a single one.
The real question has always been how can they transfer their conference success into success against other top programs and in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies play at the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks on Monday, so how does head coach Geno Auriemma think they can translate their 39-point win against Memphis to perhaps their biggest game of the season?
“I don’t know,” Auriemma said. “That’s probably not possible. To be honest with you that’s not possible.”
The Huskies are 10-0 in the conference this season but just 2-2 versus ranked teams. The two wins have come against the No. 16 DePaul Blue Demons and No. 23 Tennessee Vols, with the losses coming to the No. 6 Baylor Bears and No. 3 Oregon Ducks, the last of which took place exactly one week ago.
They’ve won their last four conference games by an average of 45.75 points but lost their two games against top-10 teams by an average of 17 points.
How could this happen to UConn, a program that’s become synonymous with National Championships over the past two and a half decades? Well, it’s important to remember what they lost this season. More specifically, who: Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson.
“45 hundred points,” Auriemma said. “45 hundred points. Think about what I just said. When they graduate, and now you’re asking a couple players to go ‘listen, just go do what those guys did last year,’ that have never done that in their life at Connecticut, and then you think that transition’s going to be easy. And in the biggest games when the shots don’t go in early, what do you think they’re thinking? They’re probably thinking ‘I wish Pheesa and Lou were back, but they’re not. I gotta make em.’ And it gets [hyperventaling] because they’ve never been there, they’ve never done that.”
In the big games this season UConn’s stars have, for the most part, struggled. In their two losses, Megan Walker is shooting 8-for-36, Olivia Nelson-Ododa is shooting 4-for-13 and Christyn Williams is shooting 10-for-26 – combining for 60 points across the two games.
Friday, the three of them combined for 65 points on 27-of-38 shooting. If they could even find a middle ground between what they’ve been able to do against American Athletic Conference opponents and the top teams in the country, then they can beat any team in the country.
Just senior Crystal Dangerfield has managed to elevate her game in the big moments, going 13-for-27 from the field for 35 points in the two games. She is the only one of the core four to shoot the ball at a higher percentage in those two games than during the rest of the season.
However, that doesn’t mean the American Conference games are pointless. It’s still an opportunity to improve, which is something that’s very noticeable. Anna Makurat has grown immensely as both a shooter and a facilitator, and Williams, after struggling while shooting the three-ball at the beginning of the season, is starting to find her stroke from beyond the arc, just to name a few.
“We got a little better since the Oregon game,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know whether that’s going to translate into Monday night, but whatever happens Monday night, when we get back, before we play at South Florida, we’re gonna be a better team. That’s just the way this is gonna go the rest of the season. But one of these days, all of these guys are gonna make huge shots and big plays in a huge game in big moments, and then, everything will be right with the world in UConn world. When is that? I don’t know.”
If they want to stand a chance at beating the Gamecocks on Monday, they’re going to need their best players to hit those huge shots in the big moments. South Carolina is one of the best teams in the country, and UConn is going to have their work cut out for them.
“So what does Monday mean? Monday could mean another ass-kicking, it could, it could,” Auriemma said. “On the road, No. 1 team in the country, they’re big, they’re fast, they’re athletic, they’re tough. There’s a reason they’re No. 1. So yeah, Monday could be another ass-whooping like the one we got the other night. Or it could not.”
UConn versus South Carolina can be watched on ESPN2, and tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.