By Arnie Leshin
Depth, lack of depth, not much bench help. Geno Auriemma mentions it sometimes, but most times, you’ll see his UConn women’s basketball team with maybe 6-7 players at his disposal. He has to worry about foul trouble, injuries, lack of experience, being out sized, and playing their butts off while the reserves cheer, run up and down their sideline offering high fives, and waiting for the call from their legendary head coach that usually doesn’t come.
But Thursday night on the road versus Seton Hall at the Walsh Gymnasium in South Orange, N.J., it was depth, the bench, the inexperienced, the no names, who kept the 4th ranked Huskies unbeaten at 7-0. For the second straight game, their pint sized 5-foot-5 senior play maker Crystal Dangerfield was sidelined with back spasms, so she could do was root, root, root for the new look of her team out on the court.
And with the fired-up Pirates (5-3) playing before a packed house, they were 3-point line happy, making 8 of their first 12 and winding up with 13 of 34. They led 28-19 after one quarter and then trailed by only 47-43 at halftime as UConn was faced with two of its key players with three personal fouls, and another with a pair.
But the calm and prepared Huskies had more than enough to pull out a 92-78 win when they won going away thanks to the reserves, 6-1 freshman Audrey Griffin, 5-9 senior Molly Bent and 6-1 freshman Anna Makurat, and can’t forget 6-1 starting junior forward Meagan Walker who tossed in a game-high 29 points on 10-of-21 from the field, 3-of-6 from the 3 and 6-of-7 from the free throw line to go with five assists and the same number of rebounds.
Otherwise, 6-5 sophomore forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa and 5-11 sophomore shooting guard Christyn Williams were side-by-side on the bench with three fouls each. But this time, it wasn’t a disaster, it was reserves Griffin, Bent and Makurat playing like they never played before in the college ranks. Griffin, named Player of the Game, did it all with a personal-high 25 points, a dozen rebounds, 7-for-14 from the floor, 2-of-3 from the 3, 10-for-12 from the charity stripe.
Then there was Bent in her fifth year with the program who spent much more time on the bench than on the court, but this time it was an awaking as let she loose wtih 14 points on 4-for-7 from the field, 2-for-3 from the 3, and bringing down six boards and coming away with four assists and the same number of steals. As for Makural, she comes to UConn after starring at Sport Championship School in Sierakowice, Poland. For the Auriemma Huskies, she took down 11 rebounds, blocked three shots, assisted twice, made 3-of-6 from the floor and, as Griffin and Bent did, was good on 2-of-3 from the 3.
Now that’s depth, something Auriemma hadn’t seen much of this season, so this was truly enlighting for him and the three who took this team from an early deficit to a going away victory.
Even the Seton Hall head coach, Tony Borello, was impressed. He said he had information on the likes of Walker, Williams, Nelson-Ododa, Dangerfield, and whoever Auriemma would pencil in to complete his starting five, but these other ladies, he said, were out of sight and he never even knew their names until his assistant coach informed him at intermission. He added that his team shot the lights out of the ball, hustled all the way, but were dominated inside and also by the way UConn got by with three top players riding the bench for most of the game.
His Pirates led 28-19 after one, trailed 47-43 at the half and 70-64 after three, and then couldn’t keep up any longer when the visitors outscored them 22-14 in the final quarter. With Griffin, Bent and Makural combining for 27 rebounds, three more than the entire Hall team, and with a 45-24 advantage, on this night, UConn found yet another way to display the coaching genius of Auriemma, who has won a record 11 national championships in the only place he has ever been a head coach.
Auriemma, born in Italy and who grew up in Philadelphia, has had 10 first-team All-Americas, the same number of Players of the Year, 27 going on to play in the WNBA, and there’s currently 14 still playing in the pro league.
Next, he’s hoping for the return of Dangerfield, who engineers the offense, skies high for rebounds, plays a tight, smart defense, and is his most experienced player. Sunday afternoonthe Huskies are home to arch-rival Notre Dame, which is presently 5-5 and ranked an unprecedented 12th. The Irish wins have been most closer than its losses. UConn is like top-ranked Stanford, undefeated, but No. 2 and No. 3 Oregon and Baylor, the pre-season favorites, both suffered losses last Saturday night.
North Carolina State, now 8-0, will improve from No. 12 in the polls after turning back visiting 5th ranked Maryland 78-68, Thursday night. UConn will also play host to Baylor, Tennessee, and Oregon, and a road game at South Carolina. Face it. every year the Huskies are competing for a national championship, and it is Auriemma who makes this a reality.