It’s tough for the UConn women’s basketball team to prepare to play in close games. After all, they don’t have much experience in them.
Since the start of the 2016-17 season, just 10 of the Huskies’ 79 games have been within 10 points or less, including losses. While there are plenty of advantages to that level of dominance, it can also prove fatal when they do find themselves in a close game.
In the 2017 Final Four, UConn never recovered from Mississippi State punching them in the mouth and struggled in critical spots, such as their final possession when Saniya Chong forced a bad shot and gave the Bulldogs a chance to win it. The next year against Notre Dame, the Huskies were killed by turnovers at the end of regulation.
With the rematch against the Fighting Irish coming up in South Bend, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma is putting his team in uncomfortable situations in practice so they’re more prepared for things to go wrong in the game.
“You have to face some tough adversity before it happens,” he said. “You’re trying to create the worst possible scenario...these are the kinds of things that if you can create them in practice and see how they react, you can help them get better at it.”
Playing on the road presents a whole gluttony of issues as well. Instead of a neutral or home crowd where there are likely some Husky fans in attendance, Notre Dame will be a completely hostile environment. The worse things get for UConn, the louder the crowd. It’s easy for the noise to get into players’ heads.
“Funny things happen on the road...things start getting a little haywire, and the crowd is going crazy, and the threes are falling for them, and you feel like you’re in a carwash, and you want to know how we’re going to handle this,” Auriemma said. “You want them to have some success here (at practice) in this carwash so you can remind them, ‘We got this’.”
The trio of Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield and Katie Lou Samuelson have all come up in clutch moments in their careers. Even Christyn Williams and Megan Walker hit big threes against St. John’s. Those five are as good of a lineup as there is in the country and if they can be ready for the tight moments, the Huskies have to feel good about their chances.
But it’s possible it won’t be those five in the final moments, whether it be foul trouble, injuries or other circumstances. Auriemma needs to make sure the team can still perform under pressure without one of the starters.
“When you put a bunch of players on the floor that are not necessarily used to playing together, and it starts to get away from them, they’re waiting for you to change it and you’re waiting for them to fix it. It’s like a game of chicken...I’m not going to [change it],” Auriemma said.
The more often he can rotate the lineup in practice, the better off UConn will be in games, even if the players don’t necessarily like it.
“The problem is kids don’t want to be put in those situations because it’s uncomfortable and it exposes a lot of bad things, who wants to have that?” Auriemma said. “Nobody wants that. Until when? Until you’re in it, then you wish you had.”