Huskies will be chal­lenged

Auriemma says role play­ers need to step up to be suc­cess­ful

The News-Times - - SPORTS - By Doug Bon­jour

STORRS — Me­gan Walker at­tended First Night at UConn in 2014, but she didn’t play. She was still just a sopho­more at Monacan High School in Ch­ester­field, Va., un­de­cided about where to spend the next phase of her life.

With the event wiped out last year be­cause of roof re­pairs at Gam­pel Pav­il­ion, Walker had to wait un­til Fri­day to par­tic­i­pate in the fes­tiv­i­ties.

“Tonight was re­ally fun for me,” Walker, a sopho­more, said. “We got to in­ter­act with the guys team. It’s just a dif­fer­ent year, a new start.”

“It was just a great opener,” se­nior Napheesa Col­lier added. “It was a lot of fun for us, a lot of fun for the fans.”

Fri­day’s an­nual turn­ing-of-the-page event gave an en­er­gized crowd of 5,432 its first look at the 2018-19 Huskies — a team that Geno Auriemma be­lieves will be very dif­fer­ent from be­fore.

“This isn’t a cou­ple years ago where we come out and get on a plane and fly to Ohio State and win by 50,” Auriemma said. “That’s not the kind of team we have this year.”

Auriemma, now in his 34th sea­son at UConn, stressed that life might be a bit more dif­fi­cult for the Huskies. Af­ter los­ing three key con­trib­u­tors from last sea­son’s team to the WNBA — Kia Nurse, Gabby Wil­liams, Azura Stevens, who de­clared for the draft a year early — the Huskies’ met­tle might be tested a few more times than it has in past sea­sons.

“We’re a lot thin­ner than we have been in the past,” Auriemma said. “We’ve got to make sure that we get more than just the re­turn­ing three starters from last year.”

The Huskies rolled through most of last sea­son, win­ning 36 straight games. They cap­tured their fifth straight Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence ti­tle — ex­tend­ing their con­fer­ence record to a ridicu­lous 101-0 in the process — be­fore run­ning into a roadblock in Notre Dame in the Fi­nal Four. Arike Ogun­bowale’s buzzer-beater lifted the Fight­ing Ir­ish into the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship game and sent the Huskies on an ear­lier-than-de­sired plane ride back to Storrs.

Can the 2018-19 Huskies take things a step fur­ther? That an­swer, Auriemma said, will largely de­pend on the kind of pro­duc­tion he re­ceives out­side of his three re­turn­ing starters: Katie Lou Sa­muel­son, Col­lier and Crys­tal Danger­field. His hope is that play­ers fur­ther down the ros­ter will be ready to take on more de­fined roles.

“When you think back to what our bench looked like when Lou and Pheesa were fresh­men, and what it looks like to­day, it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” he said. “To be able to find more con­trib­u­tors other than the three starters from last year is go­ing to be more of a chal­lenge here than it has in a long, long time.

“We’ve got play­ers that are go­ing to have to embrace spe­cific roles,” he said. “That’s ev­i­dent al­ready. You’re not go­ing to ask Kyla (Ir­win) and Molly (Bent) and Mikayla (Coombs) — who didn’t play hardly at all dur­ing the sum­mer and al­most the whole end of last year — to come in and go, ‘Hey guys, when I sub you guys in, I don’t want any­thing to change be­tween Lou, Pheesa, Crys­tal and you guys.’ I mean, that’s not re­al­is­tic, not even one bit. I just think that’s the re­al­ity of it.”

Auriemma de­scribed how he took a less hand­son ap­proach this off­sea­son, giv­ing the play­ers more free­dom than he had in the past. For in­stance, he al­lowed play­ers to set their own sched­ules con­cern­ing prac­tices, aca­demics and just about ev­ery­thing else. His hope is that by tak­ing more re­spon­si­bil­ity, cer­tain play­ers will nat­u­rally grav­i­tate to­ward lead­er­ship roles both on and off the court.

“I think in the gen­eral sense, you’re find­ing that it’s less and less preva­lent that kids come out ready to lead,” Auriemma said. “It just is. I’ve no­ticed that over the years. It’s a lit­tle more of a dif­fi­cult task, first of all, to iden­tify kids who want to lead. When you say you want to lead, you’re putting your­self out there. That’s not re­ally what the world is all about to­day. They put them­selves out there, but not in a way that we’re ask­ing them to put them­selves out there. This isn’t about, ‘Hey put on In­sta­gram that you’re a leader. It’s like ac­tu­ally do­ing it. And when you don’t do it, here’s the cir­cum­stances.”

Auriemma was com­pli­men­tary of Sa­muel­son, ex­plain­ing how she has be­gun to take on the kind of lead­er­ship role that he ex­pects from his se­niors. Side­lined af­ter un­der­go­ing off­sea­son an­kle surgery, Sa­muel­son was able to watch her team­mates from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point — Auriemma’s van­tage point.

“She wasn’t able to do a lot of the work­outs be­cause of the surgery,” he said. “She was able to sit back and kind of ob­serve where ev­ery­body was, what ev­ery­body was do­ing, and what it looked like.”

Jes­sica Hill / As­so­ci­ated Press

Olivia Nel­son-Ododa at­tempts a dunk on First Night.

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