UCONN WOMEN’S BASKETBALL UConn opens season today with some questions
STORRS — The UConn women were yearning for a test. The problem was, it seemed as if the only person capable of delivering one was Geno Auriemma.
That was life during the Huskies’ record 111-game winning streak. And this, as Auriemma reminded reporters last month at ESPN Women’s Basketball Media Day, is life now.
“I think the honest truth is that you become numb to anything other than, ‘How do we create scenarios where our guys have to fight through them?’ And now, you have to completely switch gears and go, ’We actually have to fight through (stuff). And I’m not sure I like it,” he said.
Make no mistake, the Huskies, ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll behind defending national champion Notre Dame, aren’t falling into oblivion. They’re still widely regarded as a Final Four team. It’s just that getting back there might take a bit more effort this year.
“The reality of the situation is, you can’t have it the Stewie way, the Maya way, the Dee way,” said Auriemma, referring to UConn legends Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi. “You can’t have it that way. … We’re not just like everybody else, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not what we used to be. And that’s going to take some adjustment.”
The Huskies will open the season Sunday against Ohio State at Gampel Pavilion (noon) with more questions than Auriemma is used to answering about his team. Alongside their three-program building blocks will be two players — freshman guard Christyn Williams and sophomore forward Megan Walker — making their first start. And behind them, well, the bench remains a mystery.
Here are three other times when the Huskies entered the season with similar questions, and how they ultimately fared.
CLOUD OF UNCERTAINTY
Auriemma has brought up the 2002-03 season on multiple occasions this offseason, recalling how there was a level of uncertainty around the program with two freshmen — Ann Strother and Barbara Turner — in the starting lineup. Fortunately, the Huskies also had Diana Taurasi, who won her first of back-to-back National Player of the Year awards and led the Huskies to a 37-1 record and the national title — their fourth in program history.
“I can remember, when Diana was a junior, we started two freshmen. But we could’ve started me and you,” Auriemma quipped.
FRESHMAN GUARD STARTING
She was considered the best high school player in the country, a gifted, athletic guard with seemingly limitless potential. And soon after she arrived at UConn, it became patently obvious that she was a freshman in only the technical sense.
Shea Ralph learned to embrace everything about being a Husky, including the grandiose expectations.
Is Christyn Williams ready to do the same?
“I don’t know if she’s ready for what’s coming up,” Ralph, now in her 11th season as an assistant at UConn, said Friday. “It’s hard to say for a freshman. You’re kind of throwing her right into the fire, but we’ve talked to her a lot about Bria Hartley kind of being in that position a few years ago, where her and Stefanie [Dolson] started her freshman year.
“Christyn’s going to have to learn a lot of lessons the hard way. We’re trying to help her in practice, but it’s hard sometimes.”
Hartley, a McDonalds All-American out of New York, was slated to slated to begin her collegiate career behind the more experienced Caroline Doty. However, Doty tore her ACL the summer before the 2010-11 season, forcing Auriemma to go an unconventional route — starting a freshman guard.
The Huskies wound up going 36-2 and making the Final Four thanks in large part to Hartley. Only four players — Maya Moore, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Svetlana Abrosimova and Breanna Stewart — scored more points their freshman year than Hartley (472).
Stewart, the three-time National Player of the Year, had graduated. So, too, had Moriah Jefferson, an All-American point guard. And Morgan Tuck, a trusted forward beset by knee problems, had passed up her final year of eligibility for the WNBA.
The perception, at least outside of Storrs, was that the Huskies — coming off a 38-0 season and a fourth straight national championship — would take a slight step back in 2016-17.
“I really felt my sophomore year,” Samuelson recalled Friday, “that people were like, ‘Yeah, they suck.’ … Sophomore year, it was just like, ‘Oh, let’s see what they can do.’ We kind of all had to figure out different roles.”
That didn’t take long. The Huskies found their identity with help from Samuelson (averaged 20.2 points per game), knocking off a pair of perennial powers, Baylor and Notre Dame, in the season’s first month to get to 8-0. Their record would grow to 36-0 before falling 66-64 in overtime on a buzzer-beater by Mississippi State’s Morgan William at the Final Four. The stunning defeat snapped the Huskies’ record 111-winning streak.
“This year, mostly … we kind of understand our roles,” Samuelson said. “There’s not that much unknown from the three [returning starters]. We know what we need to bring every single day. Sophomore year, it was like, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to be until we start playing.’”