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UConn’s quarterfinal win shows freshmen are x-factors for March

The Huskies’ two freshmen combined for 29 points, 22 rebounds and nine assists on Saturday night.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

10 minutes into its first game of the AAC Tournament, UConn women’s basketball looked like all its offensive progress over the last three games was for naught. The Huskies only managed five baskets on 16 shots and held just a narrow two-point lead after one quarter thanks to a late layup from Aubrey Griffin off a pick-and-roll with Anna Makurat.

It would be a sign of things to come for UConn, though.

With the Huskies’ offense struggling to find a rhythm, the team’s two freshmen answered the bell. They opened the second quarter scoring 13 of UConn’s first 18 points and eventually totaled 18 of the team’s 32 points in the period all together.

At least for Makurat, her performance was unexpected after the way she opened the game, at least according to head coach Geno Auriemma.

“I thought she was sleep walking or something. I don’t know. She just had this ugh about her,” he said of Makurat in the first quarter.

But realistically, her effort was simply a microcosm of the entire team’s performance early on. UConn was stagnant and sloppy on offense while its defense allowed too many easy baskets. It wasn’t until Olivia Nelson-Ododa picked up her second foul with 2:13 left in the first quarter and Aubrey Griffin replaced her in the game that the tide began to turn.

Immediately, the freshman grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul on the first possession before making one of two free throws. The next time down the court, Griffin gave UConn a second chance again with another offensive board. On Temple’s ensuing trip down the court, Griffin grabbed the miss. Then as the quarter wound down, she combined with Makurat for a layup just before the buzzer and drew another foul.

Griffin’s first quarter stat line: Two minutes, three points, four rebounds.

By halftime, the freshman already had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. At that point, the Huskies opened up a 19-point lead on Temple — a +17 increase from when Griffin first stepped on the floor.

After the game, she revealed the secret to her success. It wasn’t a different pre-game routine or a new mindset. It was something much more simple.

“If a shot goes up, I just go get it,” Griffin said.

Luckily, Auriemma expanded on the shy freshman.

“Her ability to go get the ball when it comes off the rim is unique,” he said. “Some people just have a knack for it and she does. And she has the god-given ability to go get it. So she has a nose for the ball but she can also go get to the ball even when you think you have her boxed out.”

While Griffin’s 16 total rebounds were a career-high, eight of those came on the offensive glass — also a new best. Considering how UConn struggled shooting the ball against top opponents, Griffin’s offensive rebounding ability could help negate those issues if she can keep it up through the rest of the month.

“Making shots gets a little bit harder every game in March, especially for young teams,” Auriemma said. “She got eight offensive rebounds. That’s eight times we came down and it was empty, nothing, and here she comes and gives us another opportunity. She turned those eight misses into buckets or free throws or another possession to kick out.”

While Griffin made her impact on the boards, Makurat matched her with eight assists. After breaking out of her early malaise, the Polish guard ended the night with 14 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

Both freshmen are far from complete players at this point in their respective careers. But each has their own way of making an impact, as Auriemma explained.

“Aubrey knows where the ball is and she goes and gets it. Anna knows where everybody is,” he said. “So if you get open she’ll get you the ball because that’s her deal. She can score but when she puts the ball on the floor, she knows where everybody is.”

However, strong performances from the freshmen class isn’t anything new. Griffin has a 25 point, 12 rebound against Seton Hall and a 12 point, eight rebound effort at ECU — to name two. But go through her game log and there’s plenty of quiet nights mixed in where she looked overwhelmed and out-matched.

As for Makurat, she dropped 24 points with 8-10 makes from beyond the arc at ECU and four-straight games with at least 15 points at the end of the season to point to. But prior to that stretch were a trio of performances where she recorded just two points total.

Both players have proven to be key contributors when they’re on the top of their game. But it’s hard to rely on freshmen to do so, especially under the bright lights of the postseason. It isn’t a matter of if Griffin and Makurat are capable of making an impact. The more pressing issue is if they can do it on a consistent basis. That part, according to Auriemma, is up to them.

“I’m just the coach, I’m not playing,” he said. “The question is do they think they can? By doing it today, they think they can do it tomorrow. If they do it again tomorrow and we win, they’ll think they can do it Monday night. That’s what I go on.”

And most importantly, Auriemma wants to keep things as simple as possible.

“I try not to put too many thoughts into Aubrey’s head. I just show her a picture of the ball, say ‘Tomorrow, you see this? Go get it.’”