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Mid-season report: Last night’s heartbreaking loss to Louisville punctuates the UConn Huskies’ mixed bag of a 2018-19 season

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Many questions have been asked of, and about, Geno Auriemma’s new starting five, whose 18-2 record is highlighted by losses to Baylor and Louisville.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at Louisville
No. 2 UConn’s Napheesa Collier gets our vote for mid-season Team MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. She had 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in last night’s 69-78 loss to Jazmine Jones (right) and the No. 3 Louisville Cardinals.
Photo by: Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

Last night in Louisville, the Cardinals grabbed their first win against the UConn Huskies since 1993 thanks to Asia Durr’s 14-point performance in the second quarter. In the loss, the Huskies scored only two points off turnovers and zero fast-break points, but Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Crystal Dangerfield combined for 55 points, while Christyn Williams sat out the majority of the fourth quarter amid continued struggles.

The 2018-19 edition of the UConn Huskies women’s basketball team has been in limbo.

Lit by the demands and a trip down Tough Love Lane, Geno Auriemma has mainly turned to his starters — Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker, newcomer Christyn Williams and seniors Katie Lou Samuelson — to produce results. His bench, on the other hand, has been an icebreaker, because of insufficient on-court time and overall production.

It feels like the season has just started but, only 10 games are left on the Huskies’ schedule, which ends with a trip to Tampa to take on the South Florida Bulls. There are also games sandwiched between now and then that harbor more meaning, like on Mar. 2, when a number retirement ceremony is scheduled for Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo.

Here’s where things stand for the Huskies at this midway point of their season:


Notable wins

UConn 99 — 63 DePaul

DePaul went into this game as a three-point factory and attempted 44 shots from long distance on the Huskies’ home turf on Nov. 28, 2018. Despite 24 points from their bench, however, the Blue Demons’ potent offense was held to a season-low 63 points courtesy of a strong game from UConn senior Collier, who flirted with a triple-double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists). The Huskies also went 10-of-19 from three-point range.

UConn 72 — 63 Oklahoma

The Sooners led 37-31 heading into halftime, but a pep talk by Coach Auriemma pushed the Huskies into a 41-26 run in the second half. Overall, the Huskies went 2-of-17 from three-point range and Collier and Samuelson set an example for the underclassmen, combining for 43 points and 26 rebounds.

UConn 89 — 71 Notre Dame

UConn opened strong and finished strong off of just nine Notre Dame turnovers and a five-woman effort on the Fighting Irish side in terms of points scored. Improvisation was also the name of the game for the Huskies, who scored a season-high 42 points in the paint and relied on freshman Williams’ 28 points.

Close calls and heartbreakers

In addition to last night’s loss to Louisville, UConn had one other loss this season as well as one very close call:

UConn 76 — 66 Cal

Cal played an entire game of basketball, keeping the Huskies on a short leash, especially in the fourth quarter by outscoring UConn, 15-20. Thankfully, Samuelson’s double-double (20 points, 11 rebounds) saved the day, in addition to the four other starters who had to play the entire 40 minutes to get by Cal.

Baylor 68 — 57 UConn

Baylor’s size was the enforcer behind UConn’s devolving interior game. The Huskies shot only 29 percent from the field. Furthermore, Dangerfield and Samuelson combined for just 5-of-20 from three-point range. The game’s showstopper, Kalani Brown, had a much better day (22 points, 17 rebounds) for a team that’s now ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Remaining schedule

Home games —

East Carolina (Feb. 6), Temple (Feb. 9), South Carolina (Feb. 11), Memphis (Feb. 20), Houston (Mar. 2)

Away/neutral games —

Cincinnati (Feb. 2), Central Florida (Feb. 17), Tulsa (Feb. 24), Wichita State (Feb. 26), South Florida (Mar. 4)


Mid-season team grades

Offense

Scoring offense — C+

It’s not so much the points that are “scaring” onlookers into thinking UConn is on a slippery slope in comparison to seasons past. The margin of victory, however, is troubling, since UConn is used to winning by 40-or-more points and reaching the century mark in points scored, which hasn’t been done this year.

Offensive rebounds — C-

In terms of Power 5 schools, Mississippi State is second in the nation with 19 offensive rebounds per game (UConn achieved that number only once, versus Saint Louis). Otherwise, UConn is nowhere to be found in the top 50, lending to the fact that the Huskies’ success is mostly derived from their defense. Samuelson is getting more aggressive in posting up, but she, along with Collier, can’t seem to position themselves to regain possession.

Defense

Scoring defense — A-

When you’ve managed to keep Notre Dame to 71 points and Baylor to 68 points, you’re doing something right. Even more impressive is UConn’s first-half defense, which, for example, allowed only 19 points to Cincinnati and 14 points to Tulane. In further defense of this defense, the Huskies also rank in the top 10 among opponent points per game and opponent field goal percentage.

Defensive rebounds — B

A defense powered by seniors Collier and Samuelson — who have combined for over 230 defensive rebounds — is still considered soft and unaggressive. Before their game against Tulane on Jan. 16, the Huskies haven’t made many dents in defensive rebounds (37) since Dec. 4.


Huskies’ hot topics

The reserves are trying to prove more to themselves than to Coach Auriemma.

Kyla Irwin, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Molly Bent are starting to show up on Auriemma’s radar, while Mikayla Coombs and Batouly Camara are seeing drops in their on-court time. Together, Coombs and Camara are averaging just six-and-a-half minutes per game and that’s not the way to go for Camara, especially, who makes some of the team’s cleanest shots.

Of course, if you’re trying to play on one of the most premiere basketball programs in the country, there’s pressure that goes with being on a talented roster. After all, when Collier and Samuelson leave after this season, two roster spots will open up. But competition for those future spots has been taking place since November.

Post-Notre Dame depression is a thing for freshman Christyn Williams.

Being the top recruit heading into your first collegiate season means nothing, particularly when you’re a starter for Coach Auriemma in Storrs. Williams may have confidence as a baller, but it’s that attitude that has come back to bite her in the form of fouls and decreased playing time. And Auriemma knows all too well that it’s just a matter of time for a player to readjust, as was the case for Breanna Stewart, who Auriemma sees in the player known as Squeaks.

At the end of the day, it’s probably best for Auriemma to have someone to work with and develop than someone who shows up with no blemishes at all.

UConn could have been robbed of wins because of turnovers on offense.

Houston and Temple could have stolen their games against the Huskies simply because of turnovers. But the Huskies have salvaged themselves since Jan. 19, when they committed 17 turnovers (third most this season). Luckily, this shortcoming hasn’t compromised a top-10 placement among Division I schools that commit the fewest turnovers per game.


Impact players and individual honors

Here’s how we think the honors and accolades should be distributed:

Team MVP, Defensive Player of the Year — Napheesa Collier

What else can be said about an all-around decent person and basketball player with 10 double-doubles this season? A soft spoken native from a town outside of downtown St. Louis, Collier has been the backbone of the UConn Huskies since their season opener. She’s not only the eyes and ears on defense, she also doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty on offense, where she’s second on the team in total points and field goal percentage.

Where does Collier place among team ranks?

1st — field goals made (152), total points (374), free throws made (64), total rebounds (198), blocks (29)

2nd — field goal percentage (58.2 percent), assists (73), steals (26)

Offensive Player of the Year — Katie Lou Samuelson

For the most part, 2018-19 season has been sculpted and shaped out of clay — she will have a bad game one day (at Temple: 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) but bounce back in another (vs. SMU: 21 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists). On Jan. 13 against South Florida, the Mater Dei alum reached 2,000 points in her career, which earned a spot next to Rebecca Lobo.

Where does Samuelson place among team ranks?

1st — points per game (18.7), three-pointers made (51)

2nd — total points (373), offensive rebounds (35), field goals made (133), free throw percentage (84.8 percent)

3rd — assists (70)

Highlight Reel of the Year — Crystal Dangerfield

It’s hard not to compare Crystal Dangerfield to Jason Kidd, one of the NBA’s all-time circus acts in assists. Particularly over the last few games, Dangerfield has perfected one of Kidd’s tricks-in-a-bag: the no-look pass. Outside of aesthetics, under her belt is another six games with eight-plus assists, all the while scoring over 15 points in three of them.

With her growing communication line with Coach Auriemma, Dangerfield will obviously be his right-hand woman for the 2019-20 season.

Most Improved Player — Megan Walker

Megan Walker has never played under 20 minutes in 2018-19, but her impact on UConn’s recent wins has been undermined. Her game against Tulane (34 points, 10 rebounds) is being credited with putting Walker on the map, but the grass truly got greener in a stat-packed night against Ole Miss (12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists).

Not only does Walker play fourth wheel to Collier, Samuelson and Dangerfield, she is only a sophomore who is going to be a part of next year’s trio featuring herself, Williams and Dangerfield.

Underdog of the Year — Molly Bent

Molly Bent may not be a high scorer, but she’s one of UConn’s hidden gems for next season. She got the attention of Storrs and Division I women’s basketball against South Florida (20 minutes played, 6 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists), a game that — to an extent — could have shifted in the Bulls’ favor without Bent.

Though Coach Auriemma’s confidence in Bent is increasing — seeing as she is his second choice to fill in for Williams — her cheerleader mentality on the bench will continue to be just as contagious.