UConn women's basketball eager to finally get season started

Published on Friday, 20 November 2020 10:22
Written by CARL ADAMEC

JOURNAL INQUIRER

Christyn Williams’ patience is being tested.

The UConn women’s basketball team has been back on the Storrs campus since late July. Practice started officially on Oct. 14. The Huskies’ first game is Nov. 28 against Quinnipiac in the Women’s Hall of Fame Challenge at Mohegan Sun Arena marks the Huskies’ latest starting date since Dec. 1, 1992.

“We’ve been practicing for so long,” Williams said. “It’s like games would have started already. We’re learning every day and we’re growing every day as a team.

“But I’m just dying to play, honestly. I’m ready to get out there and play. It’s a difference sense of urgency because of the situation we’re in.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the start of regular season play to be pushed back by two weeks and it took four games off of most teams’ schedule. In their return to the Big East, the Huskies are set to play 20 league games along with six non-league games.

The first week of their season will be in the “Bubbleville” of Mohegan Sun Arena. They’ll face either No. 6 Mississippi State or Maine on Nov. 29 and then complete their stay at the casino with a Dec. 4 contest against No. 5 Louisville.

“I think it’s great we’re playing at Mohegan,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So many things will be under control with the bubble and everything will be organized and protocols will be in place.

“And our games there will be really enlightening. If we play Mississippi State, that’s a top-5 opponent right there. And facing Louisville will be a great situation for our players to be in. Maybe our schedule for this young group is too much too soon. But the more we’re challenged the more it’s good for our team. We’ll see if we’re ready for it.”

UConn’s first four Big East games have dates as do the remaining non-league games with No. 4 Baylor (Jan. 7 in Waco), Tennessee (Jan. 21 in Knoxville), and No. 1 South Carolina (Feb. 8 at Gampel Pavilion).

The Huskies enter without a true senior for the first time in 14 years and with a roster made up of a majority of freshmen in 32 years.

“I feel like we’re meshing well on the court,” Williams said. “We have to stay patient and our chemistry will come.”

UConn returns three starters - junior guard Williams, junior center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and sophomore wing Anna Makurat - from last season’s 29-3 club that swept the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles for the seventh consecutive year. Also back from a year ago is sophomore forward Aubrey Griffin while redshirt junior guard Evina Westbrook is eligible and working her way back from knee surgery after sitting out 2019-20 due to NCAA transfer rules.

Then there are their six freshmen who make up the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class - guards Paige Bueckers, Nika Muhl, and walk-on Autumn Chassion, forwards Mir McLean and Aaliyah Edwards, and center Piath Gabriel.

The Huskies are ranked third in the preseason Associated Press poll.

“Our older guys are good to be around,” Auriemma said. “The younger guys are good to be around. The coaching staff and our support staff are good to be around.”

Now the Hall of Fame coach, who enters his 36th season with 1,091 wins (third all-time behind the late Pat Summitt with 1,098 and Tara Vanderveer with 1,094) must bring it together.

It starts with the veterans, in particular Nelson-Ododa and Williams, who must take on bigger roles and be leaders.

“But what does leadership mean?” Auriemma said. “Leadership means being someone your team can count on. ‘We need a bucket. I’m going to get it. We need a rebound. I’ll grab it. We need a stop. I’ve got it!’ Leadership is making things happen to help us win. They talk about intangibles but in my mind it’s a tangible thing. Who do you look to when the team needs something?

“Liv and Christyn have to be there for us when we need them and that’s got to be there every day. I like to think that is what they want and that they want to be viewed that way. They’re playing with a lot of kids who really don’t know the system yet and that’s not easy. They have to be a better version of themselves every day and the good thing is that they are trying to be.”

Westbrook has about as much college experience as Williams and Nelson-Ododa, but it was at Tennessee. She also has not played a game since March 2019.

The talent is there.

“She’s still working her way back into basketball shape because it’s been a long time since she’s been on the court,” Auriemma said. “There are still things she is working through, so give her time. But she’s an aggressive kid who plays with an aggressive edge. That’s been good.”

Makurat and Griffin appear ready to make a sophomore jump. Makurat, in particular, came back in great shape and is making more of an impact on every possession.

The hype about the freshmen, of course, surrounds mostly Bueckers. The nation’s No. 1 high school player has also been successful on the international stage and has won four gold medals playing for USA Basketball. A year ago she was on a 3x3 team with former UConn All-American Napheesa Collier and other WNBA first-round draft picks Jackie Young out of Notre Dame and Ruthy Hebard out of Oregon.

“With USA Basketball, there are no bad players on the court,” Bueckers said. “There’s a high standard that you are held to like here as well. Here it’s championship or bust. With USA Basketball it’s gold medal or bust. Being held to that standard of excellence where it’s expected and demanded, it’s carried over to here.”

The Huskies are expecting to compete for the program’s 12th national championship and bid for their 13th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Final Four. When last season’s NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic, it ended their NCAA-record run of consecutive 30-win seasons at 14.

The non-league portion of their schedule and the better teams in the Big East should challenge them.

It’s almost game time.

“I think we’re ready,” Williams said. “I think we’re getting there. We’re prepared for anything that’s thrown at us.”



Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Friday, 20 November 2020 10:22. Updated: Friday, 20 November 2020 10:25.