On Tuesday night at Gampel Pavilion, the UConn women unofficially open their season with an exhibition matchup against the IUP Crimson Hawks. Against a Division II opponent in a game that doesn’t count, the game is more about evaluating the team and improving rather than the final result.
While it’s often exciting to see the newcomers for the first time, head coach Geno Auriemma is more eager to see those returning.
“I want to see the four players that really played a lot last year,” he said, referencing Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. “How do they look when it’s all somewhat on them? What does it feel like to watch them play?”
After a few weeks of just practicing, Nurse is looking forward to live action.
“It’s our first opportunity to finally play someone other than ourselves or our practice players,” she said. “It’s our first time playing as this team so gelling together is what I’m hoping.”
Getting the chance to play in a real game is valuable experience for a young team like UConn that is searching for their identity early in the season.
“You can’t manufacture situations that are going to be just like the game, no matter what,” said Auriemma. “You don’t know how somebody is going to react until you get into those scenarios and that’s why I think we’re going to get better and better because we’re going to learn a lot from every one of those situations.”
Looking for leadership
While the Huskies will have to replace the Big Three of Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson on the court, their departure has also left a lack of leadership off it. As the lone senior on the team, Saniya Chong is trying to fill some of that void.
“I’m shy, but I know I’m going to have to do what I have to for my team,” she said. “I’m a senior now and I need to step up. I’m trying to do the best I can and be the leader they need.”
As an upperclassmen and the projected starting point guard, Kia Nurse is expected to take on a larger role on the team, both on and off the court, something she looks forward to.
“I love a good challenge,” said Nurse. “What I’ve learned from the leaders I’ve had on this team over the last few years, I’m hoping I can put together everything that they’ve given me.”
While the players might be focused on finding a leader, their coach isn’t too concerned for the time being.
“We haven’t really been put in any situations yet where being a leader or needing one has arisen,” said Auriemma. “It’s not that bad really. We’ll know more after two more weeks.”
Is it possible that a team that has gone 122-1 with four national championships over the past four seasons can have a chip on their shoulder? With many expecting the Huskies to take a step back this year, the players are looking forward to proving people wrong.
“I think I personally like playing with a chip on our shoulder,” said Nurse. “I think it’s an extra added motivation, going out there and proving someone wrong with the way you play is one of the most fun things you could ever do.”
Senior guard Saniya Chong wants the team to show that they’re more than the three players.
“[We want] to prove to everyone, our fans and even not our fans that we’re all sticking together and we work hard in practice every single day,” said Chong. “We’re going to prove it on the court once we play tomorrow (Tuesday).”
However, Geno Auriemma doesn’t buy it.
“They do?” he said with a laugh. “I think they’re smart enough to realize the average person out there’s been waiting for four years to see anybody else win.”
I think they’re aware of it but I haven’t talked to them about it.”