UConn has its five starters locked in: Crystal Dangerfield, Christyn Williams, Anna Makurat, Megan Walker and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
The sixth man, more often than not down the stretch, has been freshman Aubrey Griffin. This season, the slightly undersized but uber-athletic freshman forward has had moments where she completely takes over the game, and Saturday versus Temple, she did just that.
“It’s just an energy level you don’t see very often. Her ability to pressure the ball and her ability to go get the ball when it comes off the rim, it’s unique. Some people just have a knack for it, and she does. And she has the God-given ability to go get it, so she has a nose for the ball, but she also can get to the ball, even when you think you’ve got her boxed out,” head coach Geno Auriemma said.
Griffin finished the game with 15 points and 16 rebounds, eight of which were offensive, and added three steals for good measure. The best part of that stat line? She shot just 2-for-6 from the field, but she drew nine fouls, resulting in her going 11-17 from the charity stripe.
Griffin’s most important element that she brings to the team is perhaps that aforementioned energy.
“The first four minutes or so in the first quarter, our offense was a little stagnant, defensively we weren’t getting stops,” Christyn Williams said. “And she came and … it was just a momentum shift. She brings a lot off the bench, she’s very athletic and she got to the line, so just changed the energy in the game.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Olivia Nelson-Ododa:
“Her energy is the biggest thing,” Nelson-Ododa said. “She’s been able to just come off the bench and bring the most energy and be just aggressive … you can see that in her numbers too. She’s been doing great this entire tournament.”
“She’s always been aggressive, her athletic ability just heightens that even more,” Dangerfield said. “But she’s risen her play to another level since tournament play has started, and we’re going to need her to continue to do that.”
And even Temple. The Owls started the game on a 9-2 run, and even though UConn had taken a one-point lead by the time Griffin came into the game late in the first, her presence made sure it never got close again.
“Griffin came in and I just felt like she just changed the entire game,” Temple head coach Tonya Cardoza said. “I think she gave them the energy that they needed, she got some offensive rebounds, got to the free throw line and I think she was the spark that they needed.”
Less than a minute after she came into the game she grabbed her first offensive board and got fouled on the way up, converting on one of two free throws. She also closed out the quarter with a free throw, putting UConn up two going into the break.
Her ability to crash the offensive glass has been noticeable all season, with 70 of her 165 rebounds coming on the offensive end. It’s brings another element to the team, helping them in more ways than just getting another shot attempt, but mentally as well.
“Making shots gets a little bit harder each game in March, especially for young teams,” Auriemma said. “Young teams are pretty much ‘if they start going in, they’re all going in, if they don’t go in, everybody’s in a panic mode.’ So to have somebody that can give you another opportunity — she got eight offensive rebounds, so that’s eight times we came down and it was empty, nothing, and here she comes and gives us another opportunity. So she turned those eight misses into buckets or free throws or another possession to kick out, something. … so it gives you more options.”
Her eight offensive boards were the most a freshman has ever brought down in an American Athletic Conference Tournament game, and her teammates also recognize how valuable that can be.
“It gives us more opportunities to score, the more offensive rebounds we get the better it helps us, creating more possessions,” Megan Walker said. “She can rebound over almost anyone, so we want to keep that going.”
Being 6-foot-1 and usually playing either the four, if Olivia Nelson-Ododa is out there, or the five, which happens more often, she is usually competing with someone bigger than her. However, she still manages to get her hands on the ball, using her natural quickness to get around the defender.
What makes this even more impressive is that oftentimes while the opposing offense is making it’s way up the floor, she’s the one defending the point guard — something that, by the way, should be legally considered bullying considering how well she puts on the clamps. Then, when the shot goes up, it’s an instant break to the basket in an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of way, somehow getting where she needs to be to bring the ball down.
On Sunday, she had another really solid game, putting up 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting including a perfect 2-for-2 from the line, but only grabbed four rebounds (one offensive). However, her day was practically the definition of great play that does not show up on the stat sheet.
One play, in particular, stands out: About midway through the third quarter, Crystal Dangerfield drove to the basket and made a short little pull-up jumper. While the ball was in the air, Griffin managed to draw foul from USF, essentially turning the game into “winner’s ball” in pick-up basketball for a couple of seconds. That extra possession that Griffin created, one that you would never know about by looking at the box score, turned into an extra two UConn points.
At one point, her instincts and athleticism actually betrayed her, jumping a USF pass but being so far out ahead of it that she actually overran it, ending up just tipping the ball with her trail hand and not being able to complete the steal.
It’s a see ball, get ball mentality that is by design.
“I try not to put too many thoughts into Aubrey’s head,” Auriemma said. “Just show her a picture of the ball, say ‘tomorrow, see this, go get it.’”
It’s something that Auriemma and Griffin are on the same page about.
“If a shot goes up, I just go get it,” Griffin said.
When the NCAA tournament comes around and UConn goes up against a Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina caliber team, UConn is going to need her to be at her best. It’s almost a guarantee at this point that in close games, she will be the only Husky that comes off the bench. UConn’s going to need big minutes, and not necessarily in the fashion that she did it against Temple. They just need her to do what she does best: Be aggressive, crash the boards and most importantly, bring that energy.