Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey are each known for speaking their mind. They do not discount the great interest in Monday’s nationally televised game at the XL Center in Hartford (9 p.m. ESPN 2, UConn IMG Sports Network, WHUS 91.7) between No. 1 Baylor (24-1,14-0 Big 12) and the No. 3 Huskies (24-1, 11-1 Big East), but they also try to keep games outside of conference play before the postseason in perspective.
“I think any time you can play a game that is kind of a preview of the type of game you hope to play in March, I think it’s always good, regardless of whether it’s January or February,” Auriemma says. “It’s good for your younger guys to see this is potentially what it could look like in March.”
Adds Mulkey: “We’ve got three games the rest of this month. The least important one is UConn. It’s great for fans, its great for TV and great for women’s basketball. I’m not sure winning it means anything for either team. It’s not going to take a No. 1 seed away from us if we lose; it’s not going to cement a No. 1 seed if we win.”
The figurative and literal center of attention for the game will be the battle between the Bear’s All-American Brittney Griner, the 6-8 senior who led Baylor to the 2012 NCAA title, and Stefanie Dolson ’14 (CLAS), the Huskies’ 6-5 junior, who are the two dominant post players in women’s college basketball. Griner leads the Bears in scoring and rebounds, with 22 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while Dolson is second for the Huskies in both scoring and rebounding with 14.2 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Barring foul trouble that would limit either of the two centers, the effectiveness of other scoring threats for each team likely will determine how the game plays out, along with extraordinary contributions from the bench.
“Last year I said Kiah Stokes ’15 (CLAS) is going to be the X factor going into the NCAA tournament and she was,” Auriemma says, noting Stokes’ rebounding and scoring in the 2012 NCAA tournament. “If Brittany Griner is on the bench with four fouls with 15 minutes left in the game, I don’t think Baylor’s chances of winning are as good. Same thing for us if Stefanie Dolson is on the bench with four fouls, our chances of winning aren’t as good. You’re going to need contributions from other people.”
Dolson’s early foul trouble against St. John’s recently showed the difficulty UConn might have without her. The Huskies’ early struggles on Saturday during a 65-45 win at Rutgers, when the team committed quick fouls in opposition to the game plan, moved Auriemma to bench all of the usual starters except for Dolson, replacing them four minutes into the game with Stokes and the freshman trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. Tuck responded with a game-high 15 points, Jefferson scored 10 points and 3 steals and each had 5 rebounds.
“The difference in playing a UConn is that we don’t see each other often,” Mulkey says. “I just think they present a lot of problems for us. I think we present a lot of problems for them. It’s going to be players making plays. You’re going to have to limit the threes that both teams make. I think you’re going to see some zone defense.”
The Huskies will focus on containing junior guard Odyssey Sims, who is averaging 13 points per game, and senior forward Brooklyn Pope, who is scoring 11.1 points per game. Baylor will try to contain Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis ’15 (CLAS), the nation’s leading 3-point shooter and the Huskies’ top scorer averaging 16.8 points per game, and freshman Breanna Stewart, who is leading in rebounds with 7 per game and scoring 13.5 points.
Following practice on Sunday, Auriemma said the Huskies demonstrated they had learned some lessons from their struggles against Rutgers.
“One of the things we wanted to find out, and I think we found out a little bit about it yesterday, is can you win games when you don’t make any shots, when it’s difficult to knock down shots?” he said. “In order to win those games, you’ve got to be really smart, make good decisions and you can’t give the other team freebees. I thought pretty much the last 30 minutes of the game we played about the way I’d hope we would play. Today was just a carryover of that.”
Auriemma said that as the regular season winds down and the postseason is near, the physical aspect of a player’s game will not change, but the player’s mental outlook can shift.
“That’s where mentally your team is challenged the most,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to have a lot of really tough-minded upperclassmen to get you through those games. I don’t know that you get better passing, shooting, cutting, playing defense. Nobody’s going to change that much between now and the end of March. What you’re going to change is whether or not mentally you can withstand certain things — make the right play at the right time, do the right thing, is your mindset where it needs to be — those are things that are important at this time of year. No question about that.”
Saturday’s loss to Villanova (16-10, 7-6) by the men’s basketball team (17-7, 7-5) was the result of a good game plan by the Wildcats and a slip back into old habits by the Huskies.
Head coach Kevin Ollie ’95 (CLAS) called the game “a street fight,” and it was a typical Big East brawl in February, with Villanova fighting for rebounds, causing turnovers and effectively shutting down the Huskies’ leading scorers, the guards Shabazz Napier ’14 (CLAS) and Ryan Boatright ’15 (CLAS).
“Jay [Wright] had them ready to play,” Ollie said. “They got offensive rebounds, 20 of them to our five. The killer is what we’ve been doing really good; we had 19 turnovers and we’ve been taking care of the ball pretty well. You put hose two combinations together it’s always going to end up as a loss.”
The Huskies were outrebounded 41 to 25, allowing Villanova to get 20 second chance points from offensive rebounds. Freshman Omar Calhoun ’16 (CLAS) led the Huskies in scoring with 16 points followed by DeAndre Daniels ’15 (CLAS) with 13 and Neils Giffey ’14 (CLAS) with 11. Napier and Boatright together had 6 points. Villanova’s freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who has averaged about 11 points per game, shot 5 of 8 with 3-point shots and led all scorers with 25 points. Mouphtaou Yarou pulled down 16 rebounds and added 11 points for the Wildcats.
Napier, who picked up two early fouls, has had games this season in which he has not scored in the first half and then exploded in the second half, something Villanova expected might happen again.
“In the first half, we were worried because Napier was in foul trouble and Boatright only had, I think, two at halftime,” Wright said. “So, we’re like, ‘we’re down three, and those guys haven’t got it going today.’ We just did a great job in the second half.”
The Huskies are back at the XL Center on Thursday at 7 p.m. to face Cincinnati (19-7, 7-6), which is coming off a 62-55 loss to Georgetown (19-4, 9-3).
The top line for the men’s ice hockey team — Brant Harris ’14 (CLAS), Billy Latta’14 (CLAS) and Jordan Sims ’14 (BUS) –scored two goals on Saturday to beat Holy Cross 4-1, keeping the two teams tied for fourth place in the Atlantic Hockey Association standings.
Goaltender Matt Grogan ’13 (CLAS) stopped 42 shots in the game, which followed the Huskies’ 4-1 loss to Holy Cross in Storrs on Friday. The Huskies improved to 14-13-3 (11-10-2 AHA). Holy Cross dropped to 15-11-2 (11-8-2 AHA).