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UConn women’s basketball’s offense hitting its stride as it enters postseason

After a long season of prolonged struggles, the Huskies’ offense seem to finally be in sync.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When UConn women’s basketball kicked off its 2019-20 season, it didn’t take long for offensive issues to rise to the surface.

In the season opener against Cal, the Huskies slogged through 40 minutes of ugly offense. They shot just 41.5 percent from the floor and got 70 of their 72 points from the “Core Four.” That struggle proved to be only the beginning.

Since then UConn’s offense has been a series of peaks and valleys, as a team and for individual players. For the team, the high point was a six game stretch in late-December and early-January where the Huskies scored at least 80 points. However, there are also UConn’s three losses, where it failed to crack the 60-point mark.

Individually, Crystal Dangerfield and Megan Walker have been the Huskies’ only consistent presences, though Walker struggled in the three losses. Sophomores Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams both started the year strong before hitting a cold streak in the new year and have only turned it around recently. Anna Makurat started 0-11 from three, but found her shot in mid-January and has since forced her way into the starting lineup.

But there are signs that things might finally be starting to turn. In UConn’s last three regular season games, it reached 80 points every game — including a season-high 105 points against Cincinnati.

The improvements aren’t just in the stats though, especially considering the weak competition. Most importantly, UConn’s play also passes Geno Auriemma’s eye test.

“If you do something once, it’s like an accident. If you do it twice, it’s like a coincidence. Now at three times in a row, that might be the starting of a trend,” he said. “I don’t know. Three straight games where the ball moves, our defense is good, we get out in transition, we do a lot of good things that obviously almost never happened three months ago.”

The team’s talent has never been the problem. The Huskies feature five McDonalds All-Americans — including former No. 1 recruits — and a former player in Poland’s professional league. The issue is that UConn just hasn’t gotten that talent to play well all at once.

Against Baylor, Dangerfield, Walker and Williams scored all but three of the Huskies’ points while Nelson-Ododa was a non-factor in 23 minutes. In the Oregon game, Dangerfield had 19 points and Makurat had 13, but no one else had double-figures. And down at South Carolina, Dangerfield, again, nearly accounted for half UConn’s point total with 25 of 52 points.

But during this three-game stretch to close the regular season, the Huskies’ ball movement has led to more open opportunities for everyone, which resulted in four players reaching double-figures against Cincinnati and five players reaching the mark against Houston and USF.

“We’re doing a lot more back cutting, a lot more screening,” Walker said. “Everyone’s hitting their shots and everyone’s in the right position.”

Though the junior has only played a significant role during the last two seasons — years that are (unfairly) considered sub-standard for this program — Walker did get to see one of UConn’s best teams in recent memory as a freshman.

That year, the Huskies trotted out Napheesa Collier, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams along with Dangerfield at the point. They looked the part of a national title squad before getting upset by Notre Dame at the buzzer in the Final Four.

UConn featured four WNBA first round draft picks (soon to be five with Dangerfield) that season, so Walker has certainly seen what a high-level team looks like. And with the form the Huskies are in to close out the regular season, Walker thinks the current group is beginning to play like a vintage UConn squad.

“The team, we’re peaking at the right time. Coach is proud of us,” she said. “It looks fun. It looks like my freshman year when we had all those guys. So we’re getting back to that and we want to put together another stretch this weekend with the tournament and then take it game-by-game.”

But ultimately, nobody knows the offense better than Dangerfield. It’s been a frustrating campaign for the floor general, especially when things don’t work the way they’re supposed to, but the past few games have given her the gratification that only parents understand.

“I have not had a child, but it’s like raising a child and you see them blossom into this beautiful thing,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes, you want to beat your head against the wall but sometimes you see bright moments in them and that’s really what this has been and now we’re playing really great basketball and it’s coming at a great time.”