For the last three seasons, Crystal Dangerfield has been the floor general for UConn women’s basketball. And for three seasons, she’s been one of the best distributors in program history.
The senior is close to breaking into the top-10 for all-time assists and finished with the second most assists of any player in school history with a stellar 2018-19 season. Dangerfield has been a typical pass-first player, finding chances for her teammates to score while only putting up shots when the defense gives it to her.
But against Wichita State, Dangerfield flipped that script. She created offense for herself first before creating for other people and finished with a game-high 22 points on 8-13 shooting. She played aggressive by looking to score instead of giving the ball up. As skilled as Dangerfield is as a passer, head coach Geno Auriemma wants to see his point guard be more selfish with the ball.
“If you’ll notice, Crystal’s best games are when she’s trying to score, when she’s trying to be aggressive and looking to shoot the ball,” he said. “That’s when plays for other people develop. She’s not as good when she’s passing up shots, going in the lane and looking for people all the time. That doesn’t work for her.”
In the past, Dangerfield could afford to be more of a facilitator with players like Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson around her. But with those two gone, UConn needed someone to step up and fill the scoring void they left. Dangerfield has the talent to be a great scorer. She can hit shots from well beyond the arc but can also get in the lane with her shiftiness. It’s not a question of ability — just a change in mindset.
“My tendency is to want to facilitate. (Auriemma) told me to look for the shot first and the pass will create itself,” Dangerfield said. “That has to be everybody’s mindset in a way. Stay aggressive and do that because if you try to force something, it’s not going to be there.”
If Dangerfield becomes a more dangerous scoring threat, defenses will be forced to pay more attention to her and less on her teammates. That will in turn give the other four players on the floor more opportunities to get open for good shots.
The ultimate goal of the offense is to find the best available shot. If Dangerfield can create that for herself, she needs to take it. If not, that’s when she can rely on her passing to find the next-best person for a good shot.
Through the first five minutes of the game, UConn’s offense looked stuck. The Huskies couldn’t get anything going early on against a mediocre Wichita State team and didn’t score their first basket until the 5:14 mark of the first quarter. But since UConn figured it out, those struggles appeared to be nothing more than surface-level issues that every offense deals with.
“It might’ve been we hadn’t played, maybe we’re a little bit rusty,” Auriemma said. “The other thing that drives me nuts is how many layups we missed. I think we took for granted that we never miss layups. Pheesa (Collier) would catch the ball and it’d be automatic. Now we throw the ball in the lane and you close your eyes and hope it goes in. It’s dumb.”
But when the Huskies’ offense sputtered again in the third quarter, that was more problematic. It wasn’t just missed shots like earlier in the game. UConn played sloppy basketball with 12 turnovers, 13 fouls and made other mistakes it doesn’t usually make. The Huskies got lazy and let complacency settle in with a big lead.
“We’re a weird team. We don’t get tired physically, we get tired of running an offense. ‘I don’t want to pass anymore. I don’t want to cut hard anymore. I don’t want to set a good screen. Why do I have to work so hard to get open?’ Well, because these guys aren’t just going to roll over and beat us by 80,” Auriemma said. “I think our guys get tired like ‘Do I have to do this the rest of the game?’ Uh, yeah. Then they realize ‘if I don’t do it, this might be a two point game.’”
Despite leading by as many as 24 points, UConn saw its lead shrink to just 10 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Once that happened, the light seemed to go on in everyone’s head and the Huskies shrugged off the fog to score 20 of the game’s final 22 points.
“I was hoping (Wichita State) would take the lead but it didn’t happen,” Auriemma said.
That loss of focus isn’t an isolated incident. In the third quarter vs. Seton Hall, UConn came out flat in the second half and only out-scored the Pirates by two in the third quarter. Against DePaul, UConn led by 26 at the midway point. But the Blue Demons exploded out of halftime and cut the lead to four points before the Huskies eventually pulled away.
Too often, UConn goes into halftime with a solid but not sizable lead, takes its foot off the gas in the third quarter and before a fourth quarter rally gives them a comfortable win. While the Huskies haven’t been bitten yet, it’s a dangerous way to play.
“It’s a theme for us, our third quarter has been nonchalant,” Dangerfield said. “We have to turn that around, especially finishing out this month.”
If there is a silver lining to UConn’s third quarter issues and offensive problems overall, it’s that the team is getting plenty of experience playing in close games in the second half. When Wichita State brought the lead down to 10, there wasn’t any panic from the Huskies.
In previous years, if any team got within shouting distance in the final 20 minutes, UConn would’ve crumbled. Instead, the Huskies thrived under the pressure and sparked a late run to take care of business when it needed to.
“If you keep putting yourself in that situation, you’re going to develop a certain resilience to it,” Auriemma said. “If you’re never in that situation and then when it does happen to you, you’re not quite sure how to respond. Like I said, I have a feeling this team’s going to be in that situation a lot. They already have been and it’s not going to get any easier as the schedule wears on.”
While the Huskies haven’t been in a wire-to-wire type battle that they’ll likely be in against Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina, they have enough experience in tight situations to know what to do if it hits the fan.
“We’re put in certain situations in practice and we know our shot is still going to come from, we know that we still have to have three people to the boards, people getting back, getting a stop on defense. If nothing else, we can understand that about our team,” Dangerfield said.
In 2016-17, for example, when Tulane gave UConn a game late in the season, the Huskies froze up. Nobody looked like they knew what to do, who to give it to or how to handle the moment. On Thursday night, despite Megan Walker fouling out early in the fourth quarter, UConn maintained its composure, executed and came away with a 29-point victory.
On Wednesday, news broke that Evina Westbrook underwent surgery on her left knee — the same one that was operated on back in June. Not many details were given other than she was expected back before the start of next season.
When asked about it after the win over Wichita State, Auriemma didn’t do much to alleviate any concerns about Westbrook’s long-term health.
“No procedure is minor. She had a lot of issues at Tennessee. She’s had a bad knee for a long time,” he said. “She tried to play through it. It was only one fix that we know of. Doctor (Robert A.) Arciero went in, did what he does and now it’s just a wait and see. Hopefully in a couple months, the knee will be right back to normal. I hope. That’s the plan, anyway.”