UConn women’s basketball’s freshmen stole the show in the Huskies’ season opening win over UMass Lowell — and for good reason. Paige Bueckers was the best player on the floor while Aaliyah Edwards, Mir McLean and Nika Muhl all showed why the class is so highly-touted.
But that’s also partly because UConn’s returners — particularly juniors Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams — were underwhelming. Nelson-Ododa scored 12 points on 5-14 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds — but played just three minutes in the second half and went 0-7 from the floor. Williams, meanwhile, totaled just 10 points (5-12 from the field) and didn’t make any of her four attempts from 3-point range.
Auriemma isn’t worried about one game, though. In fact, he didn’t even say anything to either of them about their respective performances.
“What are you gonna explain? ‘Hey, we need, we need more from you guys,’” Auriemma explained. “I’m sure they would tell me, ‘Coach you don’t think I know that?’ So, it was just business as usual on our end.”
The issue with Nelson-Ododa and Williams’ play wasn’t necessarily what they did on the court — though neither’s stat line was particularly impressive — but how they played. The juniors are the most experienced players on the squad with two years at UConn under their belt and, surprisingly, the only ones who have even been to the NCAA Tournament with the Huskies.
Now, Auriemma wants them to play like it.
“There’s got to be, I think, on their end, a willingness and want to — I believe — really assert themselves at both ends of the floor, on offense and on defense,” he said. “We use the word consistency a lot but to be consistently aggressive, to be a consistent factor on defense, to be a consistent factor on offense and be involved in a lot of different possessions. Make things happen whether it’s with the ball or without the ball. So just be more impactful in the game and I thought both of them were way too passive, I thought, for us to be the team that we want to be.”
Geno ‘nervous’ about Big East opener
For the first time in nearly eight years, UConn is preparing to begin Big East play. The Huskies will head to Seton Hall on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m., their first game back in the conference after leaving the AAC for the new Big East in July.
For Auriemma, the vast majority of his 35 seasons at the helm in Storrs were in the Big East. Though the conference has evolved — especially since the Huskies were last members — the essence of it stays the same. Auriemma’s familiar with the road trips, the gyms and the overall feel of the Big East.
“I certainly know what kind of place Seton Hall is to play at and the significance, for me, of being back in the Big East and what what that brings back,” he said. “For me, it’s pretty special. I’m nervous. I’m anxious to to get down here and play.”
The American was never a fit for UConn a number of ways — geographically, philosophically or in terms of competition. The Huskies famously never lost a conference game in seven seasons and didn’t even come particularly close with just three games decided by single digits over that time.
UConn never needed to be on its A-game in order to win in blowout fashion. Though the Big East isn’t the power conference that it once was, it’s still a strong mid-major league with depth that — until this year — just lacked a true elite program.
“These are games that I think are going to be competed at a little bit of different level than than maybe some of these kids are used to,” Auriemma said.
Last season, Seton Hall gave the Huskies a run for their money in a December non-conference meeting. Without Crystal Dangerfield due to a back injury, UConn trailed by as many as nine points but rallied back for a 92-78 victory thanks in large part to a breakout performance from Aubrey Griffin.
The Pirates could be shorthanded on Tuesday, though. They were missing starters Femi Funeus, Desiree Elmore and key bench player Jasmine Smith in a 71-66 loss to Albany and it’s not clear if any of those three will be back on the court against the Huskies. Luckily, Seton Hall head coach Tony Bozzella is back on the sidelines after battling COVID-19.
The opponent doesn’t necessarily matter for Auriemma, though. UConn could be facing the worst team in the conference, for all he cares. The coach is just happy to be back.
“It’s a Big East game,” he said. “That’s all I need to know.”
Adjusting to life without fans
UConn is used to playing in front of a crowd. While the stands at Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center have been filled for the past 25 years, the Huskies typically draw a plenty of fans wherever they travel as well. So the team’s first experience in front of empty season was an adjustment for Auriemma.
Though he mentioned it was easier to communicate with players — “It’s bad for the players ‘cause they can’t look over and go ‘I can’t hear you,” he quipped — Auriemma’s entire feel for the game was thrown off.
“What what was different was the lack of a reaction to anything that happened,” he said.
“It’s almost numbing,” Auriemma added later. “Like, one play leads to the next to the next to the next to the next to the next and next thing, you know ‘Hey it’s halftime. Let’s go inside.’ ... I just think it’s difficult to feel the ebb and flow of the game. The rhythm of the game, the tempo of the game, the rhythm of the crowd.”