UConn Still Walking the Walk After Walker

Stefanie Dolson's increased productivity has the Huskies in good shape after Walker's departure. Photo by Roger Beaupre.

One of the most repeated sayings in the history of mankind is ‘less is more’. At times in life that holds true - the notion that simplicity and clarity leads to a strong and sturdy design.

In the case of the post-Samarie Walker UConn Huskies, that seems to be the case. They are now 8 games removed from Walker’s departure from UConn and surprisingly enough they're not just surviving, they’re thriving.

I would never go as far as saying that losing a player adds anything to the table but Connecticut has emerged with an energy that was lacking for a while.

Who knows what happened. Perhaps it was that time that everything just starts clicking for the team. Maybe it was finally figuring out who wanted to be there and work toward their goals that eased the pressure. Perhaps it’s a desire to prove everyone wrong that says, ‘they can’t do it with a small bench and not being deep enough is going to be their achilles heel.’ It could have been all of those things or it might have been none of those things. But the truth remains that their head is still in the game.

 

 

"We are starting to be a really good team," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I think we were a pretty good team in the beginning of the year. We hit a couple bumps in the road. Once we got our team squared away of who was going to be on the team and who was not going to be on the team, since that time, there has been a much more cohesiveness on the team. We trust each other a little more. We help each other a little more.

A look at the numbers:

 

With Samarie Walker

Without Walker

Points

81.53

74.13

Margin of Victory

31.82

24.25

FG %

49.58

51.33

Rebounds

43.24

41.13

Assists

19.88

19

FG% Defense

32.61

32.44

Avg. Margin of Victory

Over Ranked Teams

14.33 (5 Games)

22.75 (4 Games)

 

While you would think that the numbers would have taken a bigger hit with losing your 6th man and 4th most productive player, UConn has held steady. Points per game took a big hit but there were also no more Holy Cross’, Howards, and Lehighs on the menu. So with the increase of formidable opponents comes a decrease in the amount of points.

The Huskies have stepped up to the biggest of challenges and delivered in a variety of ways. While Bria Hartley was hampered recently with a right foot  injury, that is now on the mend, freshman Stefanie Dolson has emerged as a player to reckon with.

Prior to Walker’s departure Dolson averaged 7.2 point, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists. Since Walker’s exit Dolson has increased production to 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists. This extra productivity has made her head coach proud.

"I feel good for Stefanie," Auriemma said. "This is just something that she's decided that, 'Hey, I want to go from where I was to where I want to be.' She works her tail off, and it's paying off. It's a lesson to everybody else that if you want to go from here to there, you've just got to work hard at it."

Stefanie also acknowledges the strides she is taking to be the player that everyone thinks she can be.

"Every game, every practice I try to go in with the mindset that I am going to go in and play as hard as I can and it has worked out for me," Dolson said. "I have been focusing on my defense, running the floor and getting my conditioning level up so I can do those things without getting tired."

While Dolson has emerged as a genuine offensive threat, Connecticut needs to be a little concerned of the productivity of junior guard Tiffany Hayes. It’s easy to see why Geno Auriemma says this team goes as Tiffany goes.

"Whatever you see with Tiffany that’s just what you get," Auriemma said. "And you just never know what you’re going to see tomorrow. That’s the problem. Every time I think I’m going to see the Ohio State or North Carolina or Duke Tiffany, then I get the West Virginia Tiffany. So I just kind of look around and go, `OK, let’s see what we’re going to get.’ And that’s what makes it unpredictable and somewhat frustrating. You would like for her to be as consistent as Maya [Moore] has been. And if I knew that then I wouldn’t be so worried about `You only have six players in your rotation,’ or this, that and the other thing. But it’s been really difficult to get her to not force the issue and to try to do more than she’s capable of doing."

Tiffany Hayes continues to struggles when teams sag off of her and makes her shoot threes. Teams have figured out if you stand in her way she will run through you to get to the basket resulting in foul trouble and frustration.

While Tiffany Hayes has had some hiccups one player that continues to amaze is Maya Moore. You want her to be a 4 (Power Forward)? Sure. A 3 (Small Forward)? No problem. You want her to be your center? ‘I gotcha, coach’.

Moore’s scoring has gone up from 23.9 points per game to 27.6 points per game and her rebounding from 7.5 to 8.9. The statistic that has taken a hit is her 3 point shooting. She is down to shooting 11 for 33 (33%) in her last 8 games, well below her career average of 40%.

"It’s made her less of a jump shooter," Auriemma said of her change of position. "So she is looking for more opportunities in the lane and more mid range opportunities, which tend to get you fouled more. There were a couple of possessions [against West Virginia] that she got fouled on and back in the day that would have been a 3 point jump shot. "

"With her at the 4, it is an impossible match up," he added. "That’s why we are able to do some of the things that we can do because she is able to play at a position where there is no defending her. There is not a 4 man in America that can defend her."

The best job that Maya has done might not have been on the basketball court. It might have been off of it. Keeping this young team together and focused when things were going array.

UConn’s other steady presence continues to be Kelly Faris. As the work horse she has looked at the limited rotation as a time to steady the rocking ship. She has continued to hit shots when open, get huge rebounds and find her teammates in positions where they can make decisions with the ball. She thinks now is the Huskies time.

"Coach harps on us every day on whether we are going to fake it or show who we are," Faris said. "Our team is who we have right now. We realize that it has been a frustrating beginning of the season because we didn’t have any games where we played ‘Connecticut basketball’. We kept hearing 'where did it go,' that type of stuff. Coach hasn’t seen the entire team. There were spurts but it wasn’t consistent including practices. Now we are having really good practices. I think part of it is playing with each other long enough, you start to click, mesh and learning your role. It’s hard when you have a member of the team not on the same page."

Now more than ever there seems to be a crispness that was missing. The kids seem to have fun because they are displaying their brand, believing it's now or never.

"The month of February it’s the time when players, individually, and teams begin to separate themselves from everyone else," Auriemma said. "All those teams that have been faking it since October pretending that they are working hard in practice or that they go hard in their drills, that they show up and play every night. All those team in the next 3 weeks are going to disappear. All those teams that have been doing it for real are going to keep separating themselves. Right now we are moving towards becoming a really, really good team."

It’s a good thing that they questions are beginning to be answered. 12th ranked Oklahoma is coming to town for ESPN’s Big Monday February Frenzy (7:00 PM ESPN2).

The Sooners feature All-America guard Danielle Robinson and a Dynamic Freshmen in Aaryn Ellenburg that can light up the scoreboard. Oklahoma is fast and will challenge UConn’s ability to defend the 3, as OU is 6th in the country in 3 point shots.

The Sooners were able to hang with the Huskies last year even with Tina Charles in for UConn and without Whitney Hand (ACL) partially due to an enthusiastic crowd and aggressive play. That bodes well for OU’s chances. So it’s understandable that Auriemma wants Hayes’ best game.

"And in a game like Monday where their perimeter players are their best players," he said. "Their three leading scorers I think are Danielle Robinson and the kid Ellenburg and Whitney Hand. So it’s their three perimeter players and our three perimeter players, Bria, Tiffany and Maya. So, hopefully, Tiffany will have one of her great games.’’

While Auriemma has a great case to harp on Hayes’ production he is still hopeful.

"For today, we are right where I want to be. It’s what I want my team to look and feel like."

Right now it feels like a possible walk to Indianapolis.

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