It’s not hard to look at the box score of UConn women’s basketball’s 74-58 loss to Baylor and point to where things went wrong for the Huskies. Down by just three after 30 minutes, UConn was outscored 19-6 in the final quarter.
Except it’s not that simple. In fact, the Huskies’ downfall can be traced back to the last seconds of the third quarter.
UConn trailed by three points and held the ball for the final shot. Despite drawing even twice in the third, the Huskies couldn’t break through the wall to re-gain the lead. With the clock ticking down, Huskies trailing by three, Kyla Irwin found a wide-open Megan Walker streaking towards the basket on a backdoor cut.
It was a gimme, a bunny, a shot Walker doesn’t miss. Except she did. The ball bounced out and the XL Center let out a collective sigh. In the shadow of a 16-point loss, two points seem inconsequential. But instead of going into the fourth quarter with the momentum, the play let the air out of the building and the Huskies.
“The Megan layup on that backdoor, I think that was a bit demoralizing,” Auriemma said. “I thought that would’ve been a huge, BAM. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
It’s more than possible that even if Walker made the layup, the Huskies still suffer the same fate in the fourth quarter. But Crystal Dangerfield would’ve liked to see that ending instead.
“If I had the option to go back and have it go the other way, I’d like to see how the game turned out but I don’t,” she said. “That would’ve been a momentum swing for us definitely.”
While UConn’s offensive numbers were skewed by a horrific fourth quarter where it made two baskets, it still was a tough night for the Huskies. Dangerfield, Walker and Christyn Williams scored all but three of the team’s points yet nobody shot above 50 percent. Walker and Williams were the only two to even reach the free throw line.
But it wasn’t UConn’s typical stagnation issues that reared its head. The Huskies ran their sets well and found good looks, they just couldn’t sink them.
“The shots that we got? Some of them looked like a shooting drill. We were wide open,” Auriemma said. “We were shooting air balls and we were wide open. What do you do about that?”
Many games, UConn can survive bad shooting nights. But not against Baylor.
Auriemma explained the team’s approach. UConn’s defense has been strong all season, so it expected Baylor would score around 70 points. With that assumption, that meant the Huskies needed to score 70-75 points in order to win. Since they were outmatched in the post, that meant shooting — and making — a lot of threes.
“We needed to make 10 or 11 and we didn’t,” he said. “We knew we can’t guard them in the lane. We just can’t. So every one of those threes — we shot 8-for-26 (from three). We need to go 12-, 13-for-26.”
When the wheels came off in the fourth quarter, Baylor keyed in on UConn’s three scorers and forced them to either make tough shots or let someone else score. The Huskies didn’t do either.
“There were wide open shots, a little bit. But some of them were bad shots, including myself. We just have to knock them down regardless,” Williams said. “The offense just became stagnant. We didn’t get out in transition either. We got away from that. It’s a lot of things that played a factor into it.”
All season long, UConn has struggled finding consistency on the offensive end. On Thursday night, that struggle was magnified on a national scale. While the fourth quarter was ugly, it wasn’t totally discouraging. If the offense functions like it did through three quarters, the Huskies will have more good nights than bad nights.
“I would’ve been more disappointed if those first three quarters, we didn’t get the shots,” Auriemma said. “If a lot of the three quarters went the way the fourth quarter went, I would tell you there won’t be any games in March. I gotta believe if we get the same shots and as many of them as we got, we’ll make more of them. But we didn’t. So they win.”
Before the game, our headline read: “Baylor gives Nelson-Ododa an opportunity to make statement performance.” With a big game, UConn’s sophomore center could’ve propelled herself into the national spotlight as one of the best post players in the nation.
It was a statement performance for Nelson-Ododa, but not the kind she wanted: zero points, 0-of-8 from the field. Her first shot was a short fadeaway that sailed over the basket, indicative of the night to come.
“That’s where Liv is right now,” Auriemma said. “This game right here, this is where Liv is right now.”
But Nelson-Ododa is barely halfway through her second season. Her offensive game, while improved, wasn’t elite prior to the game. It wasn’t going to suddenly become elite against one of the best frontcourts in the country.
UConn could’ve won without Nelson-Ododa scoring a point but that would’ve required her making a sizable impact on the other end of the floor. Despite coming into the game second in the nation with 4.5 blocks per game, Nelson-Ododa played tentative and looked like she was trying to avoid fouling. As a result, she avoided any real impact and Auriemma took her out with 2:33 left in the third, where she watched the rest of the game from the bench.
“No. No. Nope. If I did, she would’ve been in the game longer,” he said when asked if Nelson-Ododa contributed defensively. “When the season started, I said Liv is probably the most key guy that we’re going to need and tonight just didn’t work out.”
One game isn’t going to define Nelson-Ododa’s career. Nearly seven years ago at the same venue against the same opponent, Breanna Stewart played just seven minutes and only appeared on the box score with two missed shots. UConn lost that game too, 76-70.
That’s not to say Nelson-Ododa is the next Stewart. But just because a young player wasn’t ready for a big game in the regular season doesn’t mean they won’t be ready at some point down the line.
“She’ll get better,” Auriemma said. “The next time we’ll play in this kind of game, she’ll play better.”