No. 1 Connecticut cruises to road victories while inexperience hampers No. 14 Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Several weeks ago after defending NCAA champion Connecticut completed its brief foray against a pair of Division II teams in tuneup contests, Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma looked ahead to his opening slate.
“We have this weekend (local rival Hartford and No. 3 Stanford) and then we go on the road playing (No. 8) Maryland and then two days later at (No.13) Penn State,” Auriemma said. “I guess we may know a lot of early.”
Of course at the time of his musings what was unknown was how would UConn also handle adversity in losing two key players: All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (elbow contusion) and Morgan Tuck (knee surgery) in the Huskies’ post rotation.
Factored into the equation but also not given a lot of thought at that moment was how would the new rules adjustment and increased foul calls affect play.
The answer to all that is not much of a problem at all, for now, thank you, as UConn concluded the stretch unbeaten with a 4-0 start culminating in a 71-52 win over Penn State Sunday afternoon before a loud partisan enemy crowd of 8,194 in the Bryce Jordan Center.
That triumph followed Friday’s 72-55 win at Maryland.
True, other than last Monday’s 76-57 win over Stanford, the two road games weren’t the usual wire-to-wire steamroller jobs usually dispensed by the Huskies.
UConn never pulled away from the Terrapins Friday night until a bit into the second half.
At Penn State the game cluttered along, but the Huskies methodically built a 37-22 lead over the Lady Lions (2-1) at the break. But then after the domination increased to 23 points at 52-29 with 12:08 left in the game, scoring sensation Maggie Lucas came to life with a flurry of treys as Penn State went on a 19-5 run to cut the deficit to nine points with 5:31 left to play.
But that was as far as the threat would go.
“When they cut it to nine I love the way we responded,” Auriemma said.
Senior All-American Bria Hartley, who had struggled mightily in the Maryland game but came back to tie a career-high 29 points in this one, struck with eight points around a Lucas jumper by connecting on a pair of treys and a jump shot to put UConn out of harm’s way.
On Friday, Hartley had been 4-for-21 and missed all 11 attempted treys but two days later against coach Coquese Washington’s troops she was 10-for-20 from the field, including an equal 50 percent efficiency 5-for-10 from beyond the arc.
Of the previous futility, especially on long-range attempts, and the turn-around, Hartley explained, “I try not to think about it. Coach tells me to be ready to hit the next shot.”
Another thing Connecticut is showing that on a given night the Huskies will be getting enhanced contributions from persons not anticipated beforehand.
In the Stanford game Kiah Stokes had her best effort.
On Sunday freshman Saniya Chong, the Parade Magazine high school player of the year last spring, had 13 of her career-high 16 points in the first half and finished by shooting 5-for-8 and 3-for-6 on attempted treys.
UConn was deadly in the transition outscoring Penn State 19-6 and 10-5 on fast break points.
Breanna Stewart also scored in double figures with 14 points while Stefanie Dolson grabbed 11 rebounds.
“I show when we come into places that get a lot of fans and have a hostile environment, we can still get done what we want to get done,” Stewart said of the weekend.
Lucas, the reigning Big Ten player of the year, had 18 points for Penn State while Tori Waldner scored 11 and Talia East grabbed 11 rebounds.
But Dara Taylor was a paltry 3-for-10 and Ariel Edwards was 1-for-13 on a Penn State team that no longer has WNBA rookie star Alex Bentley due to graduation.
“I saw a lot of inexperience,” Washington said of her team’s play. “I saw a lot of hesitation and indecisiveness. That leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness, especially on the offensive end.”
“But we need experience, so we like playing games these kind of games because it shows a lot about ourselves.”
Early in the second half, Penn State fans got a scare when Lucas limped to the sidelines after stepping on someone’s foot.
But she returned a few plays later.
“I knew she was going back in,” Washington said. “The only way she wasn’t going back in is if they wheeled out a stretcher.”
Meanwhile, having navigated the first hurdles, UConn will be favored the next month over a stretch of opponents that include Oregon, Boston University, Monmouth, and St. Bonaventure this week, followed by Ohio State and UC Davis before finals.
Then the next threat comes at No. 2 Duke in the Jimmy V game on Dec. 17 when the Huskies might be getting back to full strength.
But even shorthanded, Auriemma likes what he has seen so far.
“If we keep getting better than it’s going to be pretty hard to beat us,” he said.
“If we stay stagnant, don’t move forward from here, we’re setting ourselves up to get beat. The fact we beat three really good teams this week. That’s great. That’s great for the players, great for their confidence. This was a big test for them.”