Nearly two years ago to the day, UConn women’s basketball celebrated Geno Auriemma’s 1,000th career win against Oklahoma at Mohegan Sun Arena. Fast forward to 2019 and the Huskies will be facing the same opponent at the same venue, but this time without Auriemma. The coach is sidelined after undergoing a minor surgical procedure to “alleviate symptoms caused by diverticulitis.”
In his place, associate head coach Chris Dailey takes the reigns as the interim boss until Auriemma is well enough to return. This isn’t the first time that’s happened — Dailey is 9-0 while handling coaching duties over three separate stints since 1989 — but the long-time assistant admitted this time will be a little different.
“It’s just a lot earlier. In the past, it happened February, March, so a lot of things have already been in place by that point,” Dailey said. “This one is a little more difficult because it’s earlier in the season and we have a lot to work on and a lot to do to get better as we move forward.”
But in terms of the program’s day-to-day operations, the changes are minute — if they’re even visible at all.
“I think practice is the same whether he’s here or not,” Dailey said. “There are things we have to get better at and that’s what we’re going to do. We practiced a little this week and now we have two days to get ready for Oklahoma.”
Some people enjoy being the underdog. Chris Dailey is not one of those people. pic.twitter.com/Bs8XkEvJ36— The UConn Blog (@TheUConnBlog) December 20, 2019
Early Christmas Present
After Sunday’s game, the Huskies will break for five days, giving the players a chance to spend the holidays with their families. Anna Makurat spent Thanksgiving with Molly Bent’s family and assumed she’d do the same for Christmas before getting a surprise from the coaching staff.
“At the beginning of the season, I thought I’d only be going home in May after final exams but the coaches made a little surprise so I can go home now,” Makurat said.
The extensive travel means Makurat will only get three days at home in Poland, but she’s still happy to get back to see her family for the first time in six months. She plans to surprise her 15-year old sister — as long as she doesn’t find out before then.
Makurat gets in on Christmas Eve, the main day of Christmas celebrations in Poland. She relayed that holiday traditions include a family dinner with 12 dishes — all consisting of fish.
While it’ll certainly be a lot of travel in a short span of time, Makurat is looking forward to hitting the reset button and relaxing before gearing up for the second half.
“It’s going to be a good little break to just refresh your mind and come back for the second part of the season,” she said.
Christyn Williams had one of the best seasons by a freshman in recent memory last year, starting every game and averaging 11.7 points per game. Despite her scoring average increasing slightly so far this season, Williams admitted she’s having a harder time on offense as a sophomore.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit scoring so I’ve been trying to figure out some other stuff to do so rebounding [against DePaul] was big for us and big for me too,” she said. “I’m trying to do other stuff but scoring.”
As one of the more candid players on the roster, Williams spoke about how not knowing the cause of the issues was as frustrating as the issues themselves.
“I don’t know. That’s a great question. I feel like I’m in my head a little bit, which is normal, I guess. I don’t know,” she said. “It depends on the scout too. Like, the teams know I can score so I guess they play harder than they did last year so I’m being guarded more — which is no excuse. It’s just harder so I have to figure out different ways to get it done.”
Williams likened her current slump to hitting the freshman wall. During a seven-game stretch during conference play last year, she failed to score more than five points in all but one game. However, she eventually snapped out of it and reached double-figures in each of the last nine games of the season. Williams is confident she’ll find out a way to break through yet again.
“It’s going to be hard at times and I know that,” she said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how to get through it.”
UConn’s New Recruiter
In addition to Auriemma, assistant coach Jasmine Lister was also absent from practice on Friday. When a coach isn’t at practice, it usually signifies they’re on the road recruiting. The Huskies’ staff is getting some additional help on the recruiting trail from Paige Bueckers. The No. 1 player in the class of 2020 started a Twitter campaign to get the No. 1 player in the class of 2021, Azzi Fudd, to join her at UConn.
The pair aren’t just well-documented friends, they also happen to be two of the best high school prospects of the past few decade. Bueckers is regarded as the best recruit since A’ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart, depending on who you talk to. Fudd is considered to be just as good, if not better.
After a quiet recruiting cycle where UConn only landed No. 21 Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat from Poland as freshmen, the Huskies have exploded on the recruiting trail since. Their 2020 class featuring Bueckers and four other players was ranked second in the nation by ESPN while the 2021 class features the No. 5 player in Amari DeBarry and the No. 17 player in Saylor Poffenbarger.
After a few years of letting others win championships, UConn is poised to continue ruining women’s basketball.
“Some people like the underdog role and all that. I prefer to have the best team and have people expect us to do well because we expect us to do well,” Dailey said. “I laugh at the people who made comments about where our recruiting is. They don’t know anything about what we do or how we do it. I don’t think those same people are making comments now. We don’t worry about it but it makes you chuckle.”