It was the UConn women’s basketball team’s signature backdoor play it has used for decades in tight situations, executed perfectly Monday night with a cut by Katie Lou Samuelson and bounce pass by Crystal Dangerfield.
But Samuelson missed the layup that would have given the Huskies a six-point lead on Texas late in the third quarter and Geno Auriemma put his hands in his hair, turned away from the court, and slapped the scorer’s table.
Was UConn’s Hall of Fame coach having fun yet?
“I wish we had 15 of these. I wish we had two of these a week,” Auriemma said after the top-ranked Huskies held off No. 9 Texas 75-71 at the Frank Erwin Center. “It would be a lot of fun for our players and would be a lot of fun for me, too.”
For those who think UConn and Auriemma enjoy AAC blowout after blowout, think again.
The excitement the Huskies showed after they came back from a double-digit deficit for the second time this season and silence the Longhorns’ crowd of 11,877 said it all.
“The atmosphere was great and we knew it would be like this,” Dangerfield said. “Their fans were loud and we needed to be able to settle down when they went on their runs. We needed a game like this.”
With the AAC not living up to the level of even a season ago, UConn needs more challenges like Texas gave it.
The Huskies (16-0) are still ranked No. 1 in the RPI and No. 2 in strength of schedule, according to rpiratings.com. But the AAC is ranked eighth in conference RPI behind the Power 5 leagues, the Big East, and the Mid-American Conference. The AAC is 6-9 against teams in the Associated Press top 25, and that breakdown is UConn 6-0, everyone else 0-9.
UConn still has non-league games remaining against reigning national champion South Carolina in Columbia on Feb. 1, and second-ranked Louisville for a potential 1-2 showdown at Gampel Pavilion on Feb. 12.
The experience was good for the Longhorns (14-3) as well.
“That was a fun atmosphere for our team to play in,” Texas coach Karen Aston said. “I know UConn plays in these kinds of atmospheres a lot. For over 11,000 people to come to our own center on a holiday was exciting.”
The excitement grew when the Longhorns, looking for their first win in eight tries against the Huskies, jumped out to a 20-10 first-quarter lead behind guards Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins.
“It was hard to pass the ball tonight,” Auriemma said. “We had a hard time getting open and their pressure bothered us for long stretches. And we were out of sorts. Then when Lou gets whacked in the eye ...”
Samuelson went out after taking an elbow to the face from Texas’ Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau and ended up with a black left eye. She returned to help bring UConn within three after one quarter and a Napheesa Collier layup gave the visitors a 39-38 halftime edge.
“Every time they had a run we needed to stay composed and give it right back to them,” Samuelson said. “We needed to focus on getting stops and running the offense because when we did we got easy baskets. And that was when we calmed down.”
UConn led by six going to the fourth but that was erased by a 7-0 Longhorns spurt. A jumper by Gabby Williams put UConn back in front to stay with 7:42 left but the Huskies needed a fine pass from Dangerfield to Azura Stevens for a layup and two Dangerfield free throws with 8.3 seconds to ice it hours before a wintry mix hit the city.
By then, the Huskies were back in Storrs for the start of spring semester classes. They return to AAC action tonight against Tulsa (8-10) at Gampel.
“When we got into a little bit of a rhythm in the second half, that calmed everybody down and we settled down,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes these games don’t happen until it’s too late. You can’t manufacture these kinds of games, you have to play the games. If you win by a lot, that’s not anybody’s fault. When you get a game like this, it’s perfect. Texas was good. They made big plays, huge plays. They are a really difficult team to play against, especially here.
“We made a couple of plays down the stretch and did just enough to win the game.”