The UConn Huskies concluded their fourth game in 10 days on Tuesday night with a convincing 83-44 win over Virginia, moving to 4-0 on the young season.
Here’s what stood out:
Offensive finds a rhythm
The fact that UConn is 4-0 on the year is no surprise considering it played three weak Power Five teams and an AAC foe in Temple. However, it hasn’t exactly been business-as-usual for the Huskies from the get-go — especially on offense.
Against Cal and Vanderbilt to start the year, UConn averaged just 68 points per game and only held a margin of victory of 12 points. When the Huskies couldn’t get out in transition, they’d get stagnant in their half-court offense.
UConn decided to focus on running a half-court offense in the second half of its exhibition against Division II Trevecca Nazarene and only managed 25 points over the final 20 minutes. Against the Golden Bears, Crystal Dangerfield suggested to Geno Auriemma that they stop running plays all together.
But over the last two games, against the Owls and Cavaliers, the Huskies scored 83 points in each game and won by an average of 34 points. UConn did a much better job of moving the ball around as well, assisting on 21 of its 30 baskets (70 percent).
It wasn’t just Crystal Dangerfield padding those numbers either — the senior finished with just one assist. Everyone except for Evelyn Adebayo dished at least one helper while Kyla Irwin and Anna Makurat paced the team with five each.
In one possession at the end of the first half, UConn passed it eight times, with each player on the court touching the ball. The Huskies moved it high to low and from one side of the court to the other, finding Dangerfield open in the corner to sink a three.
It wasn’t a perfect performance — there were still times that stagnation crept in. But for where UConn is in the season, its already made good progress.
“Our ball movement from day one to today, it’s drastically different,” Auriemma said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of work that we have to do, but I like the direction that we’re going in.”
Makurat breaks the ice
Anna Makurat came to Storrs with a reputation for being a great shooter, though she had yet to show that aspect of her game at UConn, staring her career 0-for-11 from beyond the arc (or “0-for-America”, as Auriemma called it).
Makurat finally broke that streak against Virginia, sinking a three with 2:49 left in the half. The sense of relief from both Makurat and her head coach were palpable — the Poland native ran down the court with a wide smile on her face while Auriemma threw his hands in the air and did a spin move with some hops in celebration.
“Crowd cheered for so long, I won’t forget it,” Makurat said. “It’s a good feeling.”
While Auriemma was clearly happy to see the freshman start hitting her shots, he didn’t spend too much time dwelling on it postgame. Instead, he highlighted the five assists she had — right around her average of 4.75 assists per game.
“I told her, ‘You really know how to impact the game,”’ Auriemma said. “She passes to everybody but the net. She hits everything but the net. Her favorite targets are her teammates and the rim. So hopefully she’ll start making a couple.
“But that obviously adds a lot. Not everybody is going to play great every night. Somebody’s going to get in foul trouble, somebody’s going to struggle one night. What I like about Anna, she knows how to impact the game whether she’s scoring points or not, she’s going to have an effect on the game. When the shots are going in, she’s going to have a huge effect on the game.”
Makurat finished 4-of-9 from the field and 2-of-6 from three as she scored a career-high 10 points. Not world-beating numbers, but still very promising signs of improvement. If she can go from not being mentally ready to start the opener to scoring double-figures in just four games, it’s exciting to imagine what she’ll look like by the end of the semester and beyond.
Defense continues to shine
Geno Auriemma’s expectations for his defense this season are not high.
“We don’t have the pieces to be a really good defensive team this year...I don’t know if we’ll ever reach being a great defensive team. I’ve had some of those, this ain’t one of them,” he said after UConn’s exhibition against Jefferson.
But through four games, the Huskies’ defense has quietly been the backbone of the team. While they aren’t exactly facing any high-octane offenses, UConn is holding its opponents to just 52.5 points per game.
It’s easy to credit Olivia Nelson-Ododa and her 4.25 blocks a game as a reason for the Huskies’ defense success — and she certainly plays a big part in that. But against Virginia, Nelson-Ododa played just 19 minutes due to foul trouble and the Huskies still allowed a season-low 44 points.
Part of that has to do with the opponent — Virginia was picked to finish 11th out of 15 teams in the ACC. Auriemma suggested his team’s deficiencies on defense will be exposed once they play a team “with five offensive players on the floor.”
Sure, UConn might not be able to run whatever defense it wants regardless of opponent or have a true lock-down defender like Kia Nurse or Gabby Williams, but the results so far speak for themselves. While the offense has gone through its ups and downs early in the season, the Huskies have relied on their defense to win games.