UConn women’s basketball dropped its first game of the season on Thursday night as No. 19 Arkansas topped UConn, 90-87. It was Geno Auriemma’s first loss to a team outside of the top-10 since 2012.
The Huskies trailed by 10 going into the final quarter and made a pair of comeback bids, only to come up three points short.
Here’s what went wrong for the Huskies:
UConn’s defense didn’t just have its worst defensive performance of the season, it had its worst defensive performance in nearly two decades. The last team to reach 90 points in regulation against the Huskies was Notre Dame in the 2001 Final Four.
The Razorbacks shot 33-64 (55%) from the floor and 13-23 (57%) from three.
UConn switched between man and zone across the night, though neither provided answers. In the zone, the Huskies gave up the three-point line too easily. Playing man-to-man, they couldn’t stop Arkansas from driving to the basket.
“I thought there were a lot of defensive breakdowns, an awful lot,” Geno Auriemma said postgame. “When you have a team that shoots from the three-point line as well as they do, there’s a tendency to extend your defense because you don’t want to get caught late getting to a shooter. So what ends up happening is if there’s a drive, you can’t rotate down here fast enough. So they caught us a bunch of times on those.”
Though Auriemma has critiqued his team’s defense all season long, UConn hadn’t given up more than 65 points in a single game prior to Thursday night. That stat likely says more about the competition than anything, though. The Huskies did hold DePaul, who plays a similar offensive style to the Razorbacks, to 52 points but aside from that, they mostly beat up on outmatched and outgunned Big East opponents.
“When teams miss a lot of shots, you get lulled into thinking you’re a very good defensive team,” Auriemma said. “Obviously tonight, they didn’t miss a lot of shots and it showed.”
UConn’s defense has shown cracks this season, most notably when Seton Hall’s Lauren Park-Lane dropped 29 against the Huskies. That inability to shut down a hot hand resurfaced against Arkansas as Chelsea Dungee scored 37 points — the most by an opposing player against UConn since the 1999-2000 season.
She recorded at least six points in every quarter and didn’t miss more than two shots in a row all night en route to a 13-21 effort from the floor. She also went to the free-throw line 10 times, making seven.
Amber Ramirez also went off for 22 points, including 5-10 from three.
“We just had to be able to guard people — especially as guards — and contain the other team and we just didn’t get it done,” Evina Westbrook said.
In the first half, Olivia Nelson-Ododa was a complete non-factor with no points, no shots, and no rebounds. She only played nine minutes in the second half and finished with two points and two rebounds.
“I don’t think Liv was being very effective. It’s plain and simple,” Auriemma said. “Liv played 20 minutes and got two rebounds. So she’s got to be better. She’s gonna have to be better. You have to work harder.”
Auriemma opted to play Aaliyah Edwards and Mir McLean more, he said they were giving him better minutes. Edwards controlled the paint with six points and six rebounds but fouled out with a minute left in the third quarter. McLean was probably UConn’s best defender and would’ve had an even larger impact if a few close calls went her way.
Nelson-Ododa’s performance was even more disappointing considering Arkansas’ tallest player to see any action was 6-foot-2 Erynn Barnum. Even though the Razorbacks didn’t have a single player that could match up with her, Nelson-Ododa couldn’t take advantage.
“I think Liv knows what she needs to do and at the end of the day she just needs to do that,” Westbrook said. “Just be more aggressive and just be that, the best post player that we know that she is every time she steps on the floor. I think sometimes she can get away from that.”
Christyn Williams also had an inconsistent night. She scored UConn’s first six points and had a team-high 12 points at halftime but scraped together just 12 points on 2-8 shooting in the final two quarters. Williams also missed all five of her three-point attempts.
Mental mistake in final moments
For as bad as UConn’s defense played, it stepped up in the biggest moment. Arkansas had the ball with 34 seconds left and a three-point lead, which meant it couldn’t run the clock out. With a four-second difference between the shot clock and game clock, the Huskies decided not to foul.
The gamble paid off as UConn forced Ramirez to heave a miss just as the shot clock expired. Williams grabbed the rebound with just over three seconds left and initially started up the floor before freezing and calling a timeout with just 0.3 seconds remaining.
After the game, Auriemma explained that he instructed his team to try for a “breakaway” if there were more than five seconds left and to call a timeout otherwise.
“They just forgot that you can’t dribble,” he said, referencing the rule which allows teams to advance the ball to mid-court on a timeout in the final minute as long as they don’t pass or dribble off a rebound. “What’re you gonna do?”
It would’ve been difficult for UConn to make something happen in those final 3.2 ticks regardless but the blunder cost the Huskies any chance of pulling out a miracle on the final play.
The Huskies don’t face many live, late-game situations, but they did just come off of a successful close-out at Tennessee. They’ll be at No. 17 DePaul Sunday for their next game and will host No. 4 South Carolina on Monday, Feb. 8th.
Barring another unexpected like Arkansas, those will be UConn’s only two tests the rest of the season. The Huskies have shown plenty of grit in their last two games against ranked opponents but between now and March, they’ll need to prove they can execute on both ends of the floor when it counts.