This year’s edition of UConn women’s basketball probably won’t go down as one of the best defensive teams in the program’s history. The Huskies lost their top two defenders in Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams to graduation and have often played zone this season to compensate for their defensive deficiencies.
But against SMU on Wednesday night, UConn ditched the passive zone defense for an aggressive press that completely overwhelmed the Mustangs for a half.
“We were trying to get ourselves some easy buckets,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Trying to get the game going a little quicker, create as many possessions as we can. I think it worked out pretty well.”
Indeed it worked out well for the Huskies. After the first media timeout, UConn held SMU without a basket for over three minutes and had a stretch nearly two minutes long where the Mustangs didn’t even get a shot off.
After the first ten minutes, UConn had six steals, blocked three shots and forced eight turnovers overall. SMU scored just 10 points.
And then the Huskies’ defense clamped down even harder in the second period. The Mustangs could only muster six points the entire period but turned the ball over eight times. And again, SMU was held for multiple stretches without even getting a shot off.
“It’s really satisfying and really rewarding... It’s hard to play the defense that we’re playing and being rewarded with a steal or a tip shows that we’re getting to them and what we’re doing is working,” Napheesa Collier said.
The defensive effort didn’t carry over into the third quarter but re-appeared in the final ten minutes when UConn — with most of their bench in the game — only allowed four points. However, it’s not a style of play that can necessarily last for an entire game.
“I don’t know if it’s something you can do for 40 minutes every single game against every single team,” Auriemma said. “But I think there’s a time and place for it and I thought we were pretty active and I thought we were pretty aggressive in it.”
The Huskies have allowed fewer points this season than the 39 against SMU, twice. Tulane only scraped together 33 points and was out-scored by Megan Walker on her own. Cincinnati only got to 38. But Katie Lou Samuelson felt it was their best defensive performance so far this season.
“I think we really came out and pressed a little differently than we have all year and showed in the way we got out in transition because like I said, we practiced that the last two days and want to make sure we executed the way we could,” she said.
However, it wasn’t all perfect. Auriemma expressed concern with playing that type of press defense because of the team’s rebounding ability — or lack thereof.
“We’re such a lousy rebounding team so I worry,” he said. “I said to our guys before the game started, ‘If we’re really going to get after these guys, the number one thing, the biggest thing is we need to rebound the ball because they’re going to miss a lot of shots.’”
SMU did miss a lot of shots — 45 to be exact. But they got 23 of those back on the offensive glass — 51 percent — which they converted into 12 second-chance points. The Huskies will need to get better on the defense glass, otherwise better teams will make them pay and waste a great defensive effort.
In fact, UConn will have to be better when UCF comes to the XL Center this weekend.
“Sunday we’re playing a team that really rebounds the hell out of the ball,” Auriemma said. “We’re gonna really be tested.”