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UConn WBB Weekly: Geno is tired of excuses

“It’s time we stopped blaming the injuries, stop blaming fatigue, stop blaming tired,” Auriemma said after UConn beat Xavier by nine.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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Other news:

  • Nika Mühl is one of five finalists for the 2023 Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the best point guard in the nation.
  • KK Arnold was named a Naismith First Team High School All-American, Ashlynn Shade made the second team, while Qadence Samuels and Allie Ziebell both earned honorable mention status.

Injuries, fatigue no longer an excuse for “selfish” UConn team

On Monday, Geno Auriemma finally decided he had enough. After an entire month of sub-standard performances, UConn capped off the regular season with arguably its worst — a nine-point win over Xavier, who failed to win a single Big East contest this year.

So the coach sent a clear message to his team.

“It’s time we stopped blaming the injuries, stop blaming fatigue, stop blaming tired,” Auriemma said. “We are where we are.”

It’s not that the injuries aren’t a factor — the Huskies would obviously be better with Azzi Fudd on the floor — but this current group came within five points of taking down South Carolina. It’s not that fatigue isn’t affecting the players, but they’ve had an edge against better teams like on the road against Villanova.

UConn’s now played in eight consecutive single-digit contests — for reference, Breanna Stewart had just six in her entire career — with, again, one of those being against a hapless Musketeers squad that had only lost by fewer than 10 points three other times in Big East play.

The Huskies won three consecutive games by 40+ points in January with Caroline Ducharme still absent. Personnel-wise, UConn has more now than it did then, yet the performance has gotten significantly worse.

So what happened?

“There’s a reason why the last 10 games have been the way they’ve been and it has nothing to do with fatigue. We used that long enough. That story’s sailed,” Auriemma said. “Now, it’s just being held accountable for doing what you’re being coached to do, not what you feel like doing. Not what feels right for you at the moment.”

He continued: “We don’t think very well. We don’t speak on defense. We don’t communicate. That’s got nothing to do with tired or being injured. That has to do with a lot of selfishness and a lot of you don’t want to change. This is who you are and you don’t want to change.”

Selfishness isn’t often a word thrown around at UConn, though this hasn’t been a typical season. What makes the comments so surprising is that for much of the season, Auriemma lauded his players for how well they listen and how easy it’s been to coach them.

“This team so far, I don’t have to coach them hard. I just tell them ‘This is what needs to get done,’ and 99 percent of time, it gets done,” he said in October.

Auriemma has repeated a similar sentiment multiple times. Today’s symptoms all trace back to the loss against South Carolina, where UConn played about as well as it could, executed a strong game plan, and came closer to beating the Gamecocks than anyone else has this season. Even though they came up on the wrong side of the result, the Huskies’ performance provided a big boost to their confidence.

“We know we’ll face them again and we’ll get the win,” Lou Lopez Sénéchal said.

“I felt great about my team,” Auriemma said, “but I feel really good about them right now.”

That’s the last time the Huskies felt good about themselves.

Since then, there’s been plenty of hints of complacency. UConn followed South Carolina up with another loss — the first time that happened in 30 years — on the road to Marquette. In that game, the Huskies were visibly exhausted and never locked in on either end of the floor.

“I think mentally — all of us, no one in particular — I think we just checked out,” he explained after the loss. “I told the team I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for us to have that kind of mental checkout. It’s the first time all year in 20-something games that’s happened, and tonight happened to be that night against the wrong team.”

Next, UConn beat Georgetown by just eight. When the team returned home, it needed to overcome a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Creighton by two. The Huskies got up and put in a good performance against Villanova with Big East regular season title implications on the line, but then immediately fell back to Earth and lost to St. John’s at home.

UConn didn’t take the Red Storm seriously and paid the price.

“When you play a team that’s playing for their life against a team that came out [thinking] ‘We’re entitled to the Big East Championship,’ … each team got what they deserved, 100 percent,” he said.

That isn’t the only time the Huskies haven’t treated an opponent with the appropriate amount of respect. With Xavier entering the regular season finale without a Big East victory, UConn didn’t lose much sleep over the matchup.

“Xavier is a lot better than our guys wanted to give them credit for, Auriemma said. “That’s how mature they are. They want to get ready for DePaul because they think DePaul is really good but they could care less about Xavier because Xavier isn’t supposed to be any good. They looked pretty good to me out there today.”

Ultimately, Auriemma put plenty of blame on himself and the coaching staff.

“I don’t think we coached these guys as well as we coached some of the other guys,” he said. “That’s evident when you watch us play on the floor, that we look like a poorly coached team. And that’s me and my staff.”

UConn has four days off before the start of the Big East Tournament — its longest stretch without a game since Jan. 6-Jan. 10, almost two months ago. The Huskies also haven’t played back-to-back home games since Jan. 21 and Jan. 23, so their practice time has been limited.

By calling out the team now, Auriemma knows the message has a better chance to be received by everyone in the program and work can actually begin to fix the problems. The start of the postseason also creates a dividing line in the campaign, making it easier for players to shift their mindset compared to the grind of the regular season.

Even though Auriemma loudly announced that injuries, fatigue, and tiredness aren’t to be blamed anymore, he’s not saying they aren’t a factor, just that he’s sick of the excuses. Auriemma still made it clear that these additional days of practice without any substantial travel will be beneficial.

“We have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday (without playing), so that’s probably the longest stretch we’ve had between games,” Auriemma said. “I think that in of itself will help a lot.”

While Geno’s been hesitant to criticize his team this season, the coach knows what he’s doing here. The impact of the message is more important than the message itself. UConn needs a kick-start and this short break between the end of the regular season and the start of the Big East Tournament is the perfect time to hit the reset button.

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