Entering this season, one of the top storylines for the UConn women’s basketball team was their added depth compared to the season prior. While the Huskies featured just nine scholarship players in 2016-2017, that number leapt to 14 for this year.
However, depth and quality depth are two different things, and the latter was still an issue for Geno Auriemma’s squad at the start of the season.
“Having a full bench, for me that’s like having a full toolbox,” the coach said after the exhibition versus Ashland. “I don’t know how to use any of them. So it doesn’t matter if there’s one screwdriver or it’s full. It’s the same to me, I generally don’t open it.”
For the first half of the season, that toolbox was left mostly untouched. When Katie Lou Samuelson went down with an injury in UConn’s second game versus Cal, Azura Stevens stepped up in her place, averaging 16.5 points per game and 11.8 rebounds per game during the four-game stretch.
At 6-foot-6, Stevens is a nightmare matchup for any team. To make things worse, she injects energy off the bench for the Huskies without a drop-off from the starting five.
“Z is really good because she’s a force inside and outside,” Napheesa Collier said. “It forces defense to play her outside which opens up the land and inside she’s so tall you can just throw the ball up to her. She’s a walking bucket for us.”
As impressive as she’s been on offense, Auriemma still wants to see Stevens improve on the other end of the court.
“I think if you told her when she was on defense every time she blocked a shot that she could keep it and go score, she would move quicker,” Auriemma said. “She seems to move real well on the offensive end but not on the defensive end.”
But while Stevens shined as the sixth player, the rest of the Huskies bench struggled to make an impact.
Megan Walker, who came to UConn as the top recruit in the nation, dealt with inconsistency while the rest of her classmates underwhelmed. Meanwhile, sophomores Molly Bent and Kyla Irwin failed to make a noticeable leap in their second seasons.
It didn’t help that Kentucky transfer Batouly Camara dealt with a knee injury and highly-touted freshman Andra Espinoza-Hunter left the program.
However, in the last three games, Walker finally settled into a groove averaging 15 points and 4.3 rebounds. She had a breakout game at Temple where she scored a career-high 22 points along with six rebounds and five assists.
Walker has flashed her talent at different times throughout the season but the switch only seemed to click for her recently.
“She found out that if she wasn’t doing certain things, she’d end up on the bench and she didn’t want to do that and she could really help us,” Samuelson said about Walker. “So once she figured that out, she started to play much more comfortable.”
The freshman didn’t need to prove to the rest of the team that she could play. She just needed to convince herself.
“It’s been my mindset,” she said. “Just wanting to be a part of the first group and wanting to contribute.”
The emergence of Walker couldn’t come at a better time for the Huskies. Crystal Dangerfield (shin splints), Gabby Williams (hip) and Samuelson (ankle) are all dealing with ailments and having two quality options off the bench allows them to play fewer minutes, reducing the wear and tear.
“It’s really important for us to rotate people in and especially when some people shouldn’t be playing as many minutes,” Samuelson said. “We feel that we have a rotation that we can feel confident in that no matter who we send in.”
With No. 7 South Carolina looming on Thursday night, Auriemma feels good about his rotation going forward.
“Between [Stevens] and [Walker], we’re getting pretty settled in those seven players,” he said.
As for the rest of the bench? They’re making progress, even if it is taking a while.
“When those other guys got in there (against Tulane), they had a pretty good stretch there for a couple minutes,” he said. “Then things started to happen, but I won’t focus on those.”