Longhorns make Huskies work for their 16th straight victory, with junior Azura Stevens and sophomore Crystal Dangerfield employing the punch down the stretch
By Arnie Leshin
No pity please for Geno Auriemma, not when you’ve been as successful as him.
And so there he was at the conclusion of last night’s tussle on the road with Texas. The top of his dress shirt was unbuttoned, he looked like someone at the end of a long night of work, he looked like someone with reason to be proud of what had transpired.
The last time his top-ranked University of Connecticut women’s basketball team had lost was in last year’s NCAA Division I semifinals to Mississippi State on a buzzer shot. It was the only time it lost all season. All season, he had referred to that squad as one that could lose a few times, and when it did happen, he flashed a huge smile and behind it were his words that said, I told you so.
Now he came thisclose to losing with a team that he doesn’t expect to lose. This time, it would have been more of a surprise to him, but in winning 75-71 in Austin before a packed stands of about 12,000 in an electrifying atmosphere, he found praise for his team and the 9-ranked Longhorns who have now lost twice in 16 starts. But for the unbeaten Huskies, win number 16 was secured versus a fired-up team delivering its best punch.
This time there was no buzzer shot. This time it took the tall and short of this team — 6-6 Azura Stevens and 5-6 Crystal Dangerfield — to provide the heroics. First came the heads-up pass from Dangerfield to Stevens with a minute and a half to play.
Texas was playing solid defense all game, and this time Huskies’ senior Gabby Williams was stranded with the ball at the top of the key, and leading scorer, junior Katie Lou Samuelson, was well guarded. So Dangerfield took the ball from Williams, drove into traffic, and then floated a pass across the lane to Stevens for a layup and a 73-68 lead.
But as they had done all game, the Longhorns had an answer. Junior Lashann Higgs drove up the middle to score and cut the gap to 73-70. Not long after, Samuelson, who scored a game-high 19 points and was very accurate with the 3, was fouled and with both free throws bouncing off the back of the rim for her team’s first misses, it was Texas’ turn to respond again.
Senior Brooke McCarty, all of 5-4, was fouled and converted one of two tries. Then with eight seconds showing, Dangerfield was fouled and netted both attempts for the four-point lead, Texas with no outs, and UConn surviving.
The Huskies had Stevens, a very talented junior transfer from Duke, but the Longhorns had more size in its lineup with 6-4 junior Jatarie White and 6-4 senior Audrey-Ann Caron Goudreau, plus 6-4 senior Joyner Holmes off the bench, and they consistently beat UConn off the boards, especially in the first half when they limited the Huskies to one shot and not only matched them in shooting, hustling and defending, but led early and late, the largest at 12 points late in the third quarter,
But despite all this, UConn shot better from the field, from the 3-point line, from the foul line, and in the final quarter began bringing down the rebounds. And it was despite 6-1 junior starter Napheesa Collier fouling out for the Huskies with 2:40 remaining, and two others with four each.
But Stevens, as she’s done all season whether as a starter or off the bench, shrugged off three fouls in the third quarter to score key baskets inside, many times showing some fancy athletic moves underneath. She finished with 16 points, 12 coming in the second half, brought down eight rebounds, and had a pair of blocks. The only one Auriemma used off the bench, Texas and its four reserves didn’t come close to those statistics.
And Dangerfield was the engineer of the offense. She drove through the lane, tossed up some 3s, made some steals that led to baskets, and just ran the show against an opponent that started three guards. She had but two turnovers and was the reason Texas wasn’t able to apply the full court pressure.
And Auriemma, holder of a record 11 national championships and a record winning streak of 111 before Morgan Williams’ buzzer-beater in Dallas last year, only had praise for his team.
“As I told Karen Aston (the Texas head coach), her team played well enough to win, and we realized it. But we did come together at the right time. We kept our composure and I was proud of the way we hung in there against a very good team,” he said.
It might have been an awaking call for his Huskies. It let them know that they are not invincible and could fix anything that bounces their way. One loss in two years is all it took. Still, Aurieamma will now acknowledge that his team has to be ready for games like this.
Was this game good for the game? Is UConn still the clear favorite to win the title it missed out on a year ago? Or will it encounter more nights such as the one in Austin? It plays at South Carolina and will be home to Louisville, but playing a rugged schedule is normal for the Huskies, and they always come through in fine style.
As for “good for the game,” once again UConn packed the place as it does home and away. It was the largest crowd for the women’s program. It brought the headlines in the state newspapers. No doubt there is a need for a quality program like UConn, and that is “good” for the game.