Life After Maya Becomes More of a Team Effort for Women’s Basketball

In looking at the prospects for the 2011-12 edition of the women’s basketball team, head coach Geno Auriemma, who is a student of baseball, likens his sport to the National Pastime.

Sophomore center Stefanie Dolson.

Sophomore center Stefanie Dolson.

“They used to talk about being solid up the middle; catcher, shortstop, second baseman, and pitcher. I think basketball is the same way,” says the Hall of Fame coach. “You’ve got to have a great point guard, a great center, and then one more guy on the wing. When we had Renee Montgomery ’09 (CLAS), Maya Moore ’11 (CLAS), and Tina Charles ’10 (CLAS) … come on, we got the three best players in the country and they all play the right positions. [This year] we know [center] Stefanie Dolson ’14 (CLAS) will be solid, we know [point guard] Bria Hartley ’14 (CLAS) will be solid. Those two are pretty good pieces. Who is that third guy?”

Last year the third wheel was Moore, a four-time All-America selection who left her mark in the record books before moving on to lead the Minnesota Lynx to the 2011 WNBA title. Moore’s dominating presence allowed her teammates to rely upon her to save the day, more often than not.

Senior guard Tiffany Hayes.

Senior guard Tiffany Hayes.

“I think the best player in practice has been Tiffany Hayes ’12 (CLAS),” says Auriemma of the Huskies’ lone senior and mostly likely candidate this season to complete the strong middle. “Right now as a basketball player she is 50 percent better than at any time during her career. She has complete command of what she’s doing and what we’re doing. She’s become a way better basketball player, a complete basketball player. It’s been really good to see.”

Hayes, who is a preseason first team Big East and an honorable mention All-America selection as a guard, says she spent her summer trying to gain more consistency in her game and preparing to accept leadership of the team.

“I worked on my pull-up jumper, being more consistent with the three, finishing at the rim and, of course, staying on my feet,” Hayes says, referring to her history of spending as much time on the floor as she did in the air.

Junior guard Kelly Faris.

Junior guard Kelly Faris.

With the reliable junior guard Kelly Faris ’13 (ED) and the progress of heralded freshman forward/guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis ’15 (CLAS), Auriemma says it appears that initially the Huskies’ strongest team will be four guards with Dolson at center.

“This year’s definitely going to be a collective effort,” says Faris, who goes about her play quietly contributing points, rebounds, and assists, while taking on difficult defensive assignments. “I wanted to be a scorer last year, but we ended up giving the ball to Maya. This year, there’s no excuses, no outs. I’m going to be put to the test to see if can actually be an offensive threat. Defensively, I just have to keep working at it and not get lackadaisical.”

Auriemma says, “A team with two big post players is going to be tough for us, but we’re going to be a tough matchup for [the opposition] too. We’ll zig and zag and hope our tough matchup is harder for them than theirs is for us.”

Dolson, who worked on improving her conditioning and strength during the off-season, says, “I’m going to have to distribute the ball well to my teammates, know where they are. I want to expand my game. I’m going to step out and get those 15-footers so I can help the team in more ways than just being a post.”

Freshman forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

Freshman forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

However, with a bench that’s deeper than last year but still inexperienced, if the Huskies can get consistent play from either sophomore forward Michala Johnson ’14 (CLAS), redshirt junior forward Heather Buck ’13 (NUR), or freshman center Kiah Stokes ’15 (CLAS), Auriemma will have a stronger middle presence when Dolson is on the bench for rest or in foul trouble.

“I worked on my knees getting stronger, and getting in better shape,” says Johnson, who saw limited action last season while recovering from knee surgery and has shown flashes of her potential in preseason. “I’m working my hardest to get bigger so I can play more.”

Buck hopes to come into her own the way Lorin Dixon ’11 (CLAS) did last year after struggling to find a support role on the team. “I feel like I’ve been talking about confidence for three years,” Buck says. “It’s been baby steps. The times I’ve had the most success is when I just go out and play and not think about it.”

Sophomore guard Bria Hartley.

Sophomore guard Bria Hartley.

Redshirt junior Caroline Doty ’13 (CLAS) says she is eager to return to the court after missing last year with a second knee surgery.

“I was able to see a lot and learn from the sidelines,” she says. “I had to stay positive. We have a lot of young players on the team this year and I think positivity is a huge thing to keep everyone going. It allows us to have fun and do well on the court at the same time.”

Auriemma says that sophomore guard Lauren Engeln ’14 (CLAS), a prolific scorer and rebounder in high school, has worked to improve her all-around game; freshman guard Brianna Banks ’15 (CLAS) and her first-year classmates have all improved throughout the preseason; and that with a healthy Doty, he hopes to have more options to use during a season that includes games against nationally ranked Baylor, Stanford, and Texas A&M. There is also the Big East regular season, which includes games against nationally ranked members Georgetown, St. John’s, Louisville, and Notre Dame.

“We have a lot of good young players. We’re just a different team now,” says Auriemma. “We’re not even remotely the same team as last year. Not having Maya has changed a lot of things. We don’t have the benefits of having her, and the other players are forced to do things they would have never done if she was still here. There’s a tremendous level of confidence on their part that’s building every day because of what they’re forced to do.”

For the first time since 2005, the women’s basketball team is not the favorite to win the Big East regular season: Notre Dame is the top selection, with the Huskies second. Nationally, Baylor is ranked at the top of the preseason poll, followed by Notre Dame, Tennessee, and UConn.

“I’m surprised we’re that high [at No. 4], but I never paid a lot of attention when we were No. 1,” Auriemma says. “I read where people talk about being at 1, 2, and 3 and what that means. I think we’ve been at a certain level for so long, we take it for what it’s worth. Its people’s opinions without having seen the team. I think the three teams picked ahead of us absolutely, positively deserve to be there. After that, it could be anybody, really.”

The women’s basketball season opens Sunday against Holy Cross at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, with a 2 p.m. tipoff.