women’s basketball Auriemma sympathizes with injury-riddled USF
STORRS — They were once a Top-20 team possessing more talent than anyone in the American Athletic Conference outside of UConn. Now, two months later, they’re an injury-riddled shell of their former self.
Such is the sad reality for South Florida.
The Bulls, who were ranked as high as No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, have watched their season crumble under a mountain of misfortune. As such, they’ll be without three of their top four scorers when they visit No. 3 UConn on Sunday (1 p.m. in Storrs).
Guard Kitija Laksa (knee), a two-time All-AAC pick and All-American candidate, and Beatriz Jordao (foot) are done for the year with injuries. Wing Laura Ferreira is sidelined indefinitely due to an unidentified illness.
“Nobody wants to see anybody go through something like this,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Friday before practice at Gampel Pavilion.
For as much as the Huskies have had their way with the rest of the AAC since 2013-14, winning all 103 conference games, including 102 by double-digit margins, Auriemma’s always appreciated USF’s competitiveness. The Bulls, who played — and ultimately lost to — UConn in the last four AAC finals, offered the conference — one criticized with regularity because of its lack of tradition and high-level programs — a sliver of credibility as a ranked program. But now, due to a wave of ailments, they can’t even lay claim to that.
“I know how traumatic it can be to lose your best player, lose a key player, from a really, really good team,” he said. “I think they’re starting to figure out what life after Kitija was going to be like, getting a handle on it. And then it just piles on.
“I think the latest one (Ferreira), I think that probably hurt more than anything else because it just came on top of what had already happened. Hopefully, they can figure it out. That’s a lot of playing time for a lot of kids that weren’t going to play a lot. Maybe that bodes well for the future, but that doesn’t make things any easier right now.”
Ferreira, who was averaging 15.8 points and 4.9 rebounds through 15 games, missed the Bulls’ 62-49 loss to UCF on Tuesday due to illness. Her absence leaves the Bulls (10-6, 1-1), who were picked second in the AAC preseason poll, with just nine scholarship players, including five freshmen.
Auriemma, who has needed to go outside the league to find challenges, wishes the situation could’ve been different.
“We’ve always some great games with them, regardless of the fact we’ve won them all,” Auriemma said. “There’s always an element of competitiveness. You always want to be playing teams that are at their best. You play teams that are short-handed, the wins still matter and they still go on your record and all that but … kids are competitors, they want to compete.”
“That game is always kind of a big game for us,” UConn senior Katie Lou Samuelson added. “This the first year, they’re down some people. We’re going to use it to make ourselves better.”
Double-double threat: Samuelson has paced the Huskies offensively this season, averaging 19.6 points. On top of that, the 6-foot-3 guard’s also pulling down a career-best 8.3 rebounds per game, second on the team behind Napheesa Collier.
“I think since I’ve started rebounding, it’s been easier for kind of people to get out there and out in transition,” she said. “If I can help the team and I can rebound, then I’m going to keep doing it.”
Samuelson put the onus on herself to be more than just a scorer after two of the team’s best rebounders, Azura Stevens and Gabby Williams, departed this past offseason. She already has five double-doubles after recording just one over her first three seasons.
“It’s kind of a joke, I feel like, since my freshman year that I don’t rebound at all,” Samuelson said Wednesday, following her 23-point, 10-rebound performance in an 82-38 rout of Cincinnati. “I think (coach Geno Auriemma) said one time I got one more than a dead person because I had one rebound. Now, I kind of want to emphasize it and try to do as much as I can — just a little dig at him.”