The UConn Huskies (11-4, 6-0) had initially been lined up to take on No. 1 University of South Carolina Gamecocks on Thursday. As it turned out, fate (and COVID-19) intervened, and as a result, the matchup will not be played this season.
Instead, the Huskies are making the trip to the Second City to take on the DePaul University Blue Demons (16-4, 8-1), in a game that had been initially scheduled to take place on New Years’ Eve between the Big East’s top two teams.
The Huskies come into the matchup winning their past two games over Seton Hall and St. John’s relatively easily. The Demons enter on a four-game win streak, with three of those coming against bottom four teams in the league.
DePaul is the number one scoring team in the NCAA, scoring a staggering 92 points per game. This poses an intriguing matchup against a thin team like UConn that will look to take things slow to preserve energy with just six players. If the Demons are able to make the contest into a track meet, things could go south for the Huskies, as they don’t have the players to keep up.
“I think DePaul has always been a difficult assignment regardless of who we’ve had,” Coach Geno Auriemma noted. “We’ve had some undefeated great teams there and had a hard time. They play a pace and style no one else does. We’re down a couple guards so we’ll have to control the tempo, be smart with the ball and control our spots.”
DePaul is led by 6’1’’ freshman forward Aneesah Morrow. The local Chicago product has had an excellent start to her collegiate career, averaging 19.6 points per game on 55% shooting, to go along with 12.4 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.9 rejections per game. It’s important to keep in mind that these numbers are a bit inflated due to the fact that the Demons create many more possessions per game with their fast pace, but it is still impressive nonetheless. Her best game came in their loss to current No. 8 Arizona, where Morrow scored 24 points, grabbed 16 boards, got five steals and blocked three shots.
“She’s made a huge difference on their team,” Auriemma mentioned. “She’s tough, physical, she scores, rebounds. You bring someone like that to a veteran team and it’s exactly what they needed. We’re going to have our hands full.”
5’10’’ senior guard Sonia Morris has also been terrific this year and is capable of going off for a ton of points. Mainly a scoring threat, Morris averages 18 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 49% shooting. She shined in DePaul’s romp of Vanderbilt, scoring 36 points. Perhaps the most dangerous part of her game is that she can shoot the three, but is not overly-reliant on it. In the 36-point effort, Morris went 7-9 from deep, but later in the year against St. John’s, she only went 2-4 and still managed 35 points, albeit on 29 shots.
As mentioned earlier, the key for the Huskies to take down the Demons is to slow the game down and control the tempo. If the game gets too fast, the shorthanded UConn squad will be breathless by the fourth quarter and will have trouble keeping pace, as well as the historically great UConn teams may have.
One player to watch out for here will be Evina Westbrook. Despite the large scoring gap left by Paige Bueckers’ absence, Westbrook has failed to take advantage, averaging just 9.5 points per game since the injury, exactly the same as her average prior. In the past two big wins, Westbrook recorded 11 and 13 points, totals that will likely not be sufficient to win at DePaul.
Another Husky to keep an eye on will be Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Playing the best basketball of her career, the 6’5’’ forward has flourished since Bueckers’ injury. In the past five games, Nelson-Ododa has scored 13.4 points, grabbed 10.6 boards and dealt 6 assists. She has established herself as an elite passing big, ranking fifth among forwards in the stat in the nation.
“Going from my freshman year to now, learning the offense, I feel like I’ve grown a lot in that area. It also helps having teammates that can make reads like Paige,” Nelson-Ododa said.
Something worth noting is the fact that star guard Christyn Williams may be available, but on a minutes limit after missing three games in COVID-19 protocols.
The contest will air on SNY tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST.