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NCAA Women’s Basketball

Nice trip, neat experience for Ashland as its Division 11 NCAA women’s basketball champion fell 119-56 in an exhibition contest at top-ranked DI University of Connecticut Saturday night

Visiting Eagles were undefeated in 28 games last season, but ran into a far superior opponent as they trailed 79-41 at the half, and the Huskies having six in double figures

Arnie Leshin

By ARNIE LESHINSanta Fe Today

Gino Auriemma had a smiling, hearty handshake to welcome Ashland University head women’s basketball coach Maya Angelou and then took care of business.

Just to introduce you to Ashland, which made the 600-mile trip from its campus in Ohio, it is coming off the Division II basketball championship. The Eagles went undefeated in 28 games, the lone college team to do so, so they decided it would be a good idea to accept University of Connecticut’s invitation to play an exhibition game at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.

The usual home crowd was there, but it was just that, an exhibition, a game that was a fine opportunity for Ashland to match-up with a program that has won a record 11 national championships and is the overwhelming favorite to win another this season.

The Huskies had won 111 straight games and were unbeaten before losing to Mississippi State on a buzzer-beater in the NCAA semifinals in Dallas.

Now they have perhaps one of their best-ever teams.

No longer does Auriemma have concerns about a lack of bench strength. He can now go perhaps 11 deep. He returns six of his best players from last season, he has the high school player of the year as well as a 6-foot-6 transfer eligible to play. There’s enough size to contend both inside and outside, and while Auriemma hasn’t been bragging, he knows just what a dominating roster he has.

Ashland’s best chance was to watch and take notes. It was never in this game, getting routed 119-56. It was 45-11 after one quarter, 79-21 at halftime, and was 98-41 after three quarters. This was the second and final exhibition game for the Huskies, who overwhelmed Fort Hays State, 82-37, on Thursday night.

As for the Eagles, there was nothing but praise from their head coach.

“Oh my,” Angelou said. “They put on a clinic. They ran, they pressed, they hit from outside, they dominated inside, everybody in the lineup looked like All-Americas, and so it was a nice trip but not much of a game. When I called time outs, I just looked at my players, didn’t have much to say, we shared some laughs, and went back out there with no answers for the best team in the country.”

Six UConn players scored in double figures. In the second half, Auriemma emptied his bench, elite 6-foot-1 freshman Megan Walker tossing in 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting and brought down five rebounds. Azura Stevens, the 6-6 transfer from Duke, showed her worth with 17 points, 11 boards and four blocks. The reserves hit on 29 of 40 tries for a 65.4 percentage.

But the damage was already done. The Huskies took off, scored in bunches, swiped the balls, controlled the backboards, and displayed their balance. The Eagles quickly called two time outs after the first five minutes.

Senior guard Kia Nurse had the team-high 21 points on 7-for-7 shooting in only 21 minutes, juniors Naphessa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson added 19 points each, senior Gabby Williams scored a dozen and grabbed six rebounds, and sophomore Crystal Dangerfield handed out eight assists to go with five steals and seven points.

Last year, Stevens practiced with the team but sat on the sidelines all season, Wilson was leading her high school to a third-straight state title, and was Player of the Year for a third time. Nurse was red-hot from the field late last season, and Williams, Collier, Samuelson and Dangerfield were the mainstays of a team that went only 7-8 deep.

Still, the Huskies had won recent back-to-back national championships with a short bench. This was due to injuries and a lack of experience from the reserves. No such problem now. This team is obviously on a mission, destined to add a 12th title.

That’s why it opens the regular season as number one Sunday afternoon against 10th ranked Stanford at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Top-ranked and no one questioning it.

“We’ve playing well,” Auriemma, “but still have some things to work on before Columbus.”

For Ashland, it might have good a nice trip, a neat experience, but it left Storrs with a defeat it never suffered before. Home and away, it looks like UConn will be doing this to other schools.

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