At this time last year, things were bleak on the recruiting front for UConn women’s basketball. The Huskies swung and missed on every target in the top 10 — including No. 2 Jordan Horston, who chose Tennessee. UConn had just one American player committed: Aubrey Griffin, the No. 32 player in the country when she signed.
Turns out Geno Auriemma and his staff knew what they were doing.
With Olivia Nelson-Ododa in foul trouble late in the first quarter against Tennessee, Auriemma made the risky decision to stick Griffin into the game against one of the biggest teams in the nation, instead of a more traditional post player like Kyla Irwin or even Evelyn Adebayo.
The freshman made an immediate impact. Griffin stepped in front of a lazy pass at the top of the arc and took it all the way to the basket for a layup to get UConn within two. It served as a preview of the night to come.
“As soon as she came in she made a play, right?” Auriemma said. “We talked about that with her and Anna [Makurat]. We said listen, ‘When you guys are out on the floor, you kind of have to make some plays. Don’t worry about anything. Don’t just run up and down the floor, don’t be obsessed with what play we’re running. Just make a play. Do something.’ And they both did but Aubrey especially.”
When Griffin was on the floor, UConn looked like it had an extra player. Every rebound — on either end of the court — she was right in there getting a hand on the ball. Seemingly every time a Tennessee player got the ball, Griffin appeared out of nowhere to double-team and swat at the ball. The freshman’s frenetic energy rubbed off on her teammates and got into the heads of the Vols’ players, who began launching passes into the crowd.
“She was making big plays because she was playing hard,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “Obviously, we weren’t keying in on her and she was able to get some trash buckets, get some put backs. She had a couple transition buckets in the first half. She just played really hard and fulfilled a big role for them.”
This isn’t the first time Griffin helped lead UConn to victory. Against Seton Hall, she dropped 25 points with 12 rebounds in a game where the Huskies didn’t have Crystal Dangerfield and trailed by nine after the first quarter. UConn needed her to step up and she answered the bell.
On Thursday night, the Huskies faced a similar situation. The deficit wasn’t as large, just four points, but UConn couldn’t get much going offensively and it was without a different member of the Core Four. Again, Griffin stepped up.
“She was the game changer for us,” Dangerfield said. “Exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it. The second she got in, she got a steal and a bucket and that’s what she’s capable of and that’s what we needed tonight.”
When UConn gets that type of performance out of the freshman, it changes the whole equation. Auriemma understands that and knows the onus is on him and his staff to get her to play at that level consistently once the NCAA Tournament comes around.
“At some point during the game, before halftime I said to CD ‘We’ve got to really get her ready for the NCAA Tournament because we’re going to need her,’” Auriemma said. “We have to get her in her comfort zone for the NCAA Tournament and we’ve got a month or so to do that.
“She was amazing today. I would say she was the difference in the game.”
Exactly two weeks prior to Thursday, UConn played Baylor at the XL Center. The Huskies shot just 29 percent and fell apart in the final five minutes, resulting in an ugly 74-58 loss.
It wasn’t much easier for UConn to find the basket against Tennessee. The Huskies shot just 32 percent on 23-of-73 shooting except this time, the double-digit margin of victory was in their favor.
So what changed?
“How many shots you take should only determine how much you win by, not whether you win or not,” Auriemma said. “You can still win games not making a lot of shots. It kind of sunk in: We don’t have to shoot 55 percent to win a game. You can shoot lousy and still win a game.”
While it’s an overused cliche from coaches and players, UConn really did seem to want it more than the Vols. Every loose ball, a Husky was on the floor diving after it. Every missed shot, multiple players crashed the glass, which led to 17 offensive rebounds and 11 second-chance points. Defensively, UConn held Tennessee to just 34 percent shooting and allowed only 14 second half points.
Once again, the shots didn’t fall for the Huskies. But this time, they made up for it by excelling at every other facet of the game.
“That’s what you have to do,” Dangerfield said. “f you don’t, you’re definitely going to lose. Because if you gauge how you play off of if you’re making shots or not, you’re not a good team.”
Nelson-Ododa responds to challenge
For 10 long minutes, Olivia Nelson-Ododa watched from the bench with two fouls as UConn and Tennessee battled back and forth during a second quarter where the Huskies just couldn’t get over the hump and take the lead.
After halftime, Nelson-Ododa continued to sit and watch. She saw UConn snatch the lead and begin to distance itself from Tennessee. Without her, the Huskies grabbed 15 rebounds in the third quarter — eight of which were offensive.
Finally, with 2:49 left in the third stanza, Auriemma decided the message was sent and put the sophomore center back in the game.
“The best defensive player on the floor is guarding you: The bench. If you’re going to keep putting yourself on the bench in every big game, you can’t help us. If you’re going to be out on the floor, at least you can help us a little bit and then you have to match the intensity of the game.”
Message received. Nelson-Ododa played physical down low, embracing the contact and helping foul out Tennessee big Tamari Key. All 10 of Nelson-Ododa’s points came in the second half along with five of her seven rebounds.
“You always want somebody to respond whenever there’s a challenge punt in front of you. I thought there was a huge challenge put in front of her today,” Auriemma said. “If you were telling me we were going to get 30 minutes of that every night then we’re a whole different team. We’re a completely different team. That was a great snippet of what I hope she can do going forward.”
Geno remembers Pat
While UConn and Tennessee were meeting for the first time in 13 years, the rivalry was missing a foundational piece: Pat Summitt. The legendary head coach passed away in 2016 after being diagnosed with early onset dementia.
Although Auriemma wasn’t in favor of playing the Vols for the sake of nostalgia, he was quick to agree after the game became a fundraiser for the Summitt Foundation. At halftime, UConn held a ceremony where it donated $10,000 to the organization and plans to auction off its black uniforms for the cause as well.
After the game, Auriemma was asked about playing Tennessee without having Summitt stalking the opposing sideline. The 65-year old head coach — one year older than Summitt was when she died — went silent.
“I don’t think sad is the right word because leading up to the game, I thought a lot about that. Leading up to the game, it was a lot about when you’re our age as a coach and you’re still able to do this after all these years, when so many people that were our contemporaries are not here with us any longer, it does make you reflect back a little bit that things we used to take for granted. For a while there, it was ‘Yeah, when’s the Tennessee game? Geno and Pat, Pat and Geno, Geno and Pat. It was like that for me leading up to the game. I was more ‘I’m fortunate that I’m still able to do this.’ It wasn’t the same.
“I miss having her there. I miss looking forward to having here there. I don’t miss having to coach against her. I miss looking forward to it.”