Geno Auriemma’s expectations for UConn women’s basketball’s season opener were shattered on Saturday afternoon. But in fairness, they weren’t exactly very high.
“My expectations for today were really, really low. You know how low? My expectation was if we play this game... it will have exceeded my expectations,” he said. “So playing the game to me, that was it. Like, let’s just play the game. What happens in the game is almost secondary, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Huskies didn’t face much of a challenge, either. UMass Lowell is a low-major opponent that doesn’t have much hope of challenging a team like UConn. The game resembled an exhibition more than anything as the Huskies handed the visitors with ease, 79-23.
But none of that matters to Auriemma. He’s just happy that the Huskies have a game against someone — anyone other than themselves — under their belt.
“You could find out more in a 40-minute game sometimes than you can in four months of practice,” he said. “So we’ve been practicing for a long, long time, but the things that we saw today are probably more telling in good and bad ways, then those four months.”
Games — especially those that count — are a place that players can see the results (or lack thereof) of what they do in practice. But when teams practice for indefinite periods of time, like UConn did this summer and fall, the coaches have little to work with for player improvement.
“What ends up happening is [the players] start to see that all the good things that happened and all the bad things that happen are directly related to what happens in practice,” Auriemma said. “So when we practice and we say ‘Hey look, keep your foot still, ‘Well, it’s not that important.’ Well, it isn’t until you get a couple of walking calls. Or ‘Hey, let’s make sure that we finish around the basket.’ ‘Well, I missed a couple, nice try.’ ‘Hey get your stance and let’s talk on defense.’
“These kinds of things are way more important when you see them in a game because when you show your players that they say ‘Oh yeah, see now I know how that transfers over.’”
With three games coming up over the next seven days, the Huskies will gain valuable experience while Auriemma and his staff will have plenty of film at their disposal.
“We practiced for four months and I learned more about my team today than I did in those four months,” Auriemma said. “After Tuesday’s game, I’ll know twice as much about my people than I did in those four months. So for me, these are all learning experiences, finding out about my team. So yeah, we need games. That’s the only way you can find out. We don’t need any more practice. I don’t want to go to another practice if I don’t have to and neither do the players.”
Auriemma went to his bench early and often with nine players playing at least ten minutes. Paige Bueckers, Anna Makurat, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, and Christyn Williams all got the start, with Aaliyah Edwards, Piath Gabriel, Aubrey Griffin, Mir McLean, and Nika Muhl all seeing action.
Williams played all but two minutes in the afternoon while Bueckers totaled 35 and Makurat 32. Westbrook appeared to have her playing time managed as she finished with 21 minutes in her UConn debut. Nelson-Ododa was on the court for 15 of the first 20 minutes but only three minutes in the second half. Gabriel got four minutes at the end while everyone else saw between 11 and 15 minutes.
However, the rotation will probably evolve as the season progresses. Though Auriemma knows how he’ll split up minutes between the guards, he isn’t sure how the frontcourt will shake out yet.
“The guards are going to work themselves out. It’s more of the post players that I have to figure out, the frontcourt players. The backcourt rotations, those are easy.”
Huskies defense impresses, but will it last?
UConn put on a suffocating defensive performance against UMass Lowell, limiting the River Hawks to just 23 points on 8-56 shooting (14%) while forcing 15 steals, 22 turnovers overall, and 28 points off them. But one game against a bad team isn’t going to convince Auriemma that the Huskies will be a great defensive team this season.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t know that we can be one of those elite defensive teams like we’ve had in the past. We may become that,” he said. “Maybe down the road we can become that and it’s something that we’ve talked about in practice a lot.”
The coach referenced the wall in the Werth Champions Center that features all the National Defensive Players of the Year at UConn. He uses that to challenge certain players — probably specifically Griffin, McLean, and Nelson-Ododa — to reach that level.
“I asked some of our players, I said, ‘Do we have any of those players here on our team?’ Does anyone aspire to be that player?” Auriemma relayed. “If we said, ‘Okay, we’re playing a really good guard. Kia Nurse, you got that guy. Hey, we’re playing a really good forward, whatever. Hey Gabby (Williams), you got that guy.’ I don’t know who those people are yet. They may evolve, but I don’t know who they are yet.”