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Culture shock: No. 1 UConn shakes up lineup with purpose

The UConn Huskies have reached the 25-win mark for the 23rd straight season. Let that sink in. Head Coach Geno Auriemma has had such sustained success because of the little things, like what he did Wednesday night against the Cincinnati Bearcats, that continues to prepare his team for March.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Storrs, CT -- Change. Just the thought of that word makes some people cringe. Wednesday night, the undefeated UConn Huskies experienced some major changes to their starting lineup when they faced off against the Cincinnati Bearcats, and what if I told you those changes were done intentionally.

By now, most people who follow women's college basketball are aware of the "Big 3" this year's UConn team has. Breanna Stewart, the most recognizable name, is joined by Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck to make up the trio, and all three came off the bench against the Bearcats.

Yes, the Huskies still dismantled Cincinnati by 54 points despite a back and forth first quarter, but head coach Geno Auriemma said a lineup change is something he had been thinking about for the last couple weeks.

"We need to get some of these guys more of an ownership with what's going on," Auriemma said. "I think if you're not careful, when you have three dominant players like we do, there's a tendency for kids to just kind of defer all the time, and say, "well, when I come in we'll already be up 25, and there's no pressure on me, so I don't have to worry."

In addition to joking that bringing his three best players off the bench was a ploy to "boost our bench points," Auriemma said the change was made to change the environment his players were in to see how they would react.

Mission accomplished. After trotting out Saniya Chong, Napheesa Collier, Natalie Butler with usual starters Kia Nurse and Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn found themselves in a 15-15 game about six minutes into the first quarter when the newly named "reserves" entered the game for the first time.

Auriemma said he saw a lot of what he expected to see early in that first quarter.

"I thought that we wouldn't have a lot of problems (on the offensive end, but) we knew we would struggle a little bit on the defensive end," Auriemma said. "I wasn't happy about that, and we let the know about it. It's good for them to see that when you get into a game and your up 30, it doesn't matter if you play good defense or not, in their minds, but when it's 15-15, it matters."

UConn allowed more points in the first quarter against the Bearcats (19) than it did throughout the other three-quarters combined (15), so it appears the Huskies quickly fixed whatever problems they were having on the defensive side of the court. Stewart mentioned the impact the tied score had when the starters came out with a little over three minutes left in the first.

"That was something coach mentioned, that the score was tied in the first quarter," Stewart said. "For what we do, that's not living up to our standards.

Also, it's important to realize that when you're starting the game, or at any point in the game, everyone wants to score on us. We need to make sure that we set and maintain that (defensive) tone, that no one scores on us throughout the entire game."

As the old saying goes in most sports, defense wins championships. UConn knows a thing or two about both. This year's Huskies are unique because many of the younger players around the "Big 3" have not been in big moments yet. Stewart says something as simple as a lineup switch will go a long way for this team in the postseason.

"Anytime you're going into the game, especially with some of them starting their first game, or haven't started in a while, there's a little extra chip on their shoulder, they want to make sure they are really focused. The big thing is it's not only for this game, but have that for every single game."

Butler is one player that stepped up her game as a result of getting more opportunities on the court. The 6-foot-5 transfer from Georgetown had 14 points and ten rebounds against Cincinnati, including five offensive rebounds.

Cincinnati Head Coach Jamelle Elliot, who played at UConn and was an assistant under Auriemma, said after the game when she first saw Butler play at Georgetown she reminded her of someone in particular: former UConn great Kara Wolters.

(Butler's) definitely a physical presence inside, and tonight with our lack of size she was just really, really dominant," Elliot said. "It's just a matter of her getting that edge. I'm sure (Auriemma) wants her to play with a little more of a mean streak as he says, but I think if she gets that, with her size and her nice finesse and touch around the basket, I think she could be pretty good for them."

It is players like Butler that will have to step up in March for this UConn team to win their fourth straight National Championship. Butler said she didn't know for sure she was starting tonight until she saw her name on the board in the locker room before the game, but says that opportunity uncovered a lot for this team."

"I think it showed a lot of what we need to work on as a group, and what I need to work on personally," Butler said. "The first half was rough, especially defensively. I think we came back in the second half and did a much better job, but I look at it as an opportunity to get better, and it starts at our next practice."

Some teams are not as fortunate as UConn in the sense that the Huskies could sit their three best players, only playing them a total of 55 minutes combined, and still win a game against a conference opponent rather easily. This lineup shakeup could be what we look back on in early April as the moment this team started to stop deferring to its "Big 3," as each player began making their mark on this season.

"I think at times it's difficult (to keep others from deferring), but at the same time they all came to UConn for a reason," Stewart said. "They came here to make an impact, and not just watch others make the impact. They're going to learn a lot from what they did (against Cincinnati)."