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UConn women’s basketball Huskies will be challenged

October 13, 2018

STORRS — This year will be different. There’s no doubt in Geno Auriemma’s mind.

“This isn’t a couple years ago where we come out and get on a plane and fly to Ohio State and win by 50,” Auriemma said before First Night festivities tipped off Friday at Gampel Pavilion. “That’s not the kind of team we have this year.”

Auriemma, now in his 34th season at UConn, stressed that life might be a bit more difficult for the Huskies. After losing three key contributors to the WNBA — guard Kia Nurse and forwards Gabby Williams and Azura Stevens, all starters — the Huskies’ mettle is sure to be tested more than it has in past seasons.

The Huskies rolled through most of last season, winning 36 straight games out of the gate. They captured their fifth straight American Athletic Conference title — extending their conference record to a ridiculous 101-0 in the process — before running into a roadblock in Notre Dame at the Final Four. Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater lifted the Fighting Irish into the National Championship game and sent the Huskies on an earlier-than-desired plane ride back to Storrs.

Can the 2018-19 Huskies take their season a step further? Auriemma insists that answer will largely depend on the performance of players not named Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield. Players further down the roster, he said, will need to start embracing larger, more defined roles.

“When you think back to what our bench looked like when Lou and Pheesa were freshmen, and what it looks like today, it’s completely different,” he said. “To be able to find more contributors other than the three starters from last year is going to be more of a challenge here than it has in a long, long time.

“We’ve got players that are going to have to embrace specific roles,” he said. “That’s evident already. You’re not going to ask Kyla (Irwin) and Molly (Bent) and Mikayla (Coombs) — who didn’t play hardly at all during the summer and almost the whole end of last year — to come in and go, ‘Hey guys, when I sub you guys in, I don’t want anything to change between Lou, Pheesa, Crystal and you guys.’ I mean, that’s not realistic, not even one bit. I just think that’s the reality of it.”

Auriemma described how he took a less hands-on approach this offseason, giving the players more freedom than he had in the past. For instance, he allowed players to set their own schedules concerning practices, academics and just about everything else. His hope is that by taking more responsibility, certain players will naturally gravitate toward leadership roles both on and off the court.

“I think in the general sense, you’re finding that it’s less and less prevalent that kids come out ready to lead,” Auriemma said. “It just is. I’ve noticed that over the years. It’s a little more of a difficult task, first of all, to identify kids who want to lead. When you say you want to lead, you’re putting yourself out there. That’s not really what the world is all about today. They put themselves out there, but not in a way that we’re asking them to put themselves out there. This isn’t about, ‘Hey put on Instagram that you’re a leader.’ It’s like actually doing it. And when you don’t do it, here’s the circumstances.”

Auriemma was complimentary of Samuelson, explaining how she has begun to take on the kind of leadership role that he expects from his seniors. Sidelined after undergoing offseason ankle surgery, Samuelson was able to watch her teammates from a different vantage point — Auriemma’s vantage point.

“She wasn’t able to do a lot of the workouts because of the surgery,” he said. “She was able to sit back and kind of observe where everybody was, what everybody was doing, and what it looked like.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com

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