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women’s basketball: No. 1 UConn at No. 8 Baylor Baylor literally poses big challenge for No. 1 UConn

January 3, 2019

STORRS — There was no hint of tension in Geno Auriemma’s voice two days before a Top-10 showdown at Baylor. But sarcasm, yes, there was plenty of sarcasm.

The Hall of Fame coach offered up this doozy to illustrate the challenges freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa will face against Lady Bears’ All-American forward Kalani Brown.

“It’ll be a real good test for her,” Auriemma said. “It kind of reminds me when Stefanie (Dolson) went against Brittany Griner in the second game of her career. It was a real good test. She got an F-minus, but it was a real good test.”

To recap: Dolson fouled out in only 12 minutes, though UConn overcame a near triple-double from Griner to beat Baylor in a Final Four rematch, 65-64, in 2010.

When No. 1 UConn and No. 8 Baylor, women’s college basketball heavyweights, meet for the seventh time Thursday at the Ferrell Center (9 p.m., ESPN), it’s Brown whom the Huskies will be most concerned about.

Brown possesses one trait that the Huskies can’t match — size. Standing 6-foot-7, she’s one of the country’s true difference-makers in the paint.

“Kalani’s six inches taller than both me and Megan (Walker),” UConn senior Napheesa Collier said. “We’re going to have a lot of help on the back side and people digging in. We’re going to have to be really strong with ourselves in the post.”

In addition to Brown, who’s averaging 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, the Huskies will have to deal with 6-4 Lauren Cox.

“It’s probably a unique challenge for anybody in the country when you think about the size that they have and the combination of the size and quickness in their guards,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and you don’t have one of those two things. In this case, it’s all that size, which we don’t have, and all that quickness in their backcourt. And they’re home.”

On paper, it represents a rare mismatch for the 11-time national champions, who have an abundance of talent, but lack size. Nelson-Ododa, the Huskies’ tallest player at 6-5, is raw and untested, averaging only 11.3 minutes per game.

But, even if she’s not ready, the Huskies may need her to contend with Baylor’s muscle in the paint.

“Unless something happens between now and when we get there, Olivia’s still the only one that’s 6-5,” Auriemma said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to take advantage of that as best we can.”

That alone is complicated. There’s no ideal way, Auriemma explained, to prepare for Baylor’s size.

“You really can’t,” Auriemma said. “As much as you think you might be able to, you can’t. There’s very little way that you can simulate how they play and how big they are and how physical they are.

“You just have to go down and play the game and try to figure out different ways defensively that you can try to negate some of that.”

It’s a unique challenge, one the Huskies (11-0) seem ready to tackle despite their deficiencies. The first two months of the season, Collier said, sharpened the Huskies’ confidence, and laid the foundation for what they hope will be a run to a 12th consecutive Final Four.

An 18-point win on the road against defending national champion Notre Dame in December tested the Huskies’ mettle, as did come-from-behind victories against St. John’s and Oklahoma.

“This whole season, we’ve been in situations where we’re uncomfortable, (where) we’re not doing things that we want to do,” Collier said. “We’ve come from behind. This team has a lot of fight in us. Even though they’re bigger than us, I think we’re going to give it everything we can.”

The Huskies have won an incredible 126 consecutive games in the regular season, dating to 2014 (88-86 overtime loss at Stanford). Coincidentally, they haven’t lost a regular season game in regulation since then-No. 1 Baylor beat them 76-70 in Hartford on Feb. 18, 2013.

Collier has become a double-double machine for the Huskies, averaging 18.6 points and a team-high 10.5 rebounds. The Huskies hope to use Collier’s versatility to their advantage as they look for ways to overcome Baylor’s greatest strength.

“They do have a lot of bigs and they don’t like to run as much,” Collier said. “Obviously, transition’s one of our strong suits. We’re going to try to run a lot.”

Camara on the rebound: Auriemma sounded hopeful that 6-2 forward Batouly Camara will return Thursday. Camara has missed the last six games with a sprained right MCL.

“I hope so,” he said. “She’s been able to get through practices more and more as we’ve gotten along here. I think she can help in a game like this where we’re going to need her to be as physical as she plays, and to play defense and rebound like I know she can. I don’t know how much she can help us offensively.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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