UConn opens sea­son to­day with ques­tions

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Sports - By Doug Bon­jour

STORRS — The UConn women were yearn­ing for a test. The prob­lem was, it seemed as if the only per­son ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing one was Geno Auriemma.

That was life dur­ing the Huskies’ record 111- game win­ning streak. And this, as Auriemma re­minded re­porters last month at ESPN Women’s Bas­ket­ball Me­dia Day, is life now.

“I think the hon­est truth is that you be­come numb to any­thing other than, ‘ How do we cre­ate sce­nar­ios where our guys have to fight through them?’ And now, you have to com­pletely switch gears and go, ‘ We ac­tu­ally have to fight through ( stuff ). And I’m not sure I like it,” he said.

Make no mis­take, the Huskies, ranked No. 2 in the AP pre­sea­son poll be­hind de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pion Notre Dame, aren’t fall­ing into obliv­ion. They’re still widely re­garded as a Fi­nal Four team. It’s just that get­ting back there

might take a bit more ef­fort this year.

“The re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion is, you can’t have it the Stewie way, the Maya way, the Dee way,” said Auriemma, re­fer­ring to UConn legends Bre­anna Ste­wart, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi. “You can’t have it that way. … We’re not just like every­body else, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not what we used to be. And that’s go­ing to take some ad­just­ment.”

The Huskies will open the sea­son Sun­day against Ohio State at Gam­pel Pav­il­ion ( noon) with more ques­tions than Auriemma is used to an­swer­ing about his team. Along­side their three- pro­gram build­ing blocks will be two play­ers — fresh­man guard Christyn Wil­liams and sopho­more for­ward Me­gan Walker — mak­ing their first start. And be­hind them, well, the bench re­mains a mys­tery.

Here are three other times when the Huskies en­tered the sea­son with sim­i­lar ques­tions, and how they ul­ti­mately fared.

CLOUD OF UN­CER­TAINTY

Auriemma has brought up the 2002- 03 sea­son on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions this off­sea­son, re­call­ing how there was a level of un­cer­tainty around the pro­gram with two fresh­men — Ann Strother and Bar­bara Turner — in the start­ing lineup. For­tu­nately, the Huskies also had Diana Taurasi, who won her first of back- to- back Na­tional Player of the Year awards and led the Huskies to a 37- 1 record and the na­tional ti­tle — their fourth in pro­gram his­tory.

“I can re­mem­ber, when Diana was a ju­nior, we started two fresh­men. But we could’ve started me and you,” Auriemma quipped.

FRESH­MAN GUARD START­ING

She was con­sid­ered the best high school player in the coun­try, a gifted, ath­letic guard with seem­ingly lim­it­less po­ten­tial. And soon af­ter she ar­rived at UConn, it be­came patently ob­vi­ous that she was a fresh­man in only the tech­ni­cal sense.

Shea Ralph learned to em­brace ev­ery­thing about be­ing a Husky, in­clud­ing the grandiose ex­pec­ta­tions.

Is Christyn Wil­liams ready to do the same?

“I don’t know if she’s ready for what’s com­ing up,” Ralph, now in her 11th sea­son as an as­sis­tant at UConn, said Fri­day. “It’s hard to say for a fresh­man. You’re kind of throw­ing her right into the fire, but we’ve talked to her a lot about Bria Hart­ley kind of be­ing in that po­si­tion a few years ago, where her and Ste­fanie [ Dol­son] started her fresh­man year.

“Christyn’s go­ing to have to learn a lot of lessons the hard way. We’re try­ing to help her in prac­tice, but it’s hard some­times.”

Hart­ley, a McDon­alds All- Amer­i­can out of New York, was slated to slated to be­gin her col­le­giate ca­reer be­hind the more ex­pe­ri­enced Caro­line Doty. How­ever, Doty tore her ACL the sum­mer be­fore the 2010- 11 sea­son, forc­ing Auriemma to go an un­con­ven­tional route — start­ing a fresh­man guard.

The Huskies wound up go­ing 36- 2 and mak­ing the Fi­nal Four thanks in large part to Hart­ley. Only four play­ers — Maya Moore, Kaleena Mosqueda- Lewis, Svet­lana Abrosi­mova and Bre­anna Ste­wart — scored more points their fresh­man year than Hart­ley ( 472).

OUT­SIDE EX­PEC­TA­TIONS

Ste­wart, the three- time Na­tional Player of the Year, had grad­u­ated. So, too, had Mo­riah Jefferson, an Al­lAmer­i­can point guard. And Mor­gan Tuck, a trusted for­ward be­set by knee prob­lems, had passed up her fi­nal year of el­i­gi­bil­ity for the WNBA.

The per­cep­tion, at least out­side of Storrs, was that the Huskies — com­ing off a 38- 0 sea­son and a fourth straight na­tional cham­pi­onship — would take a slight step back in 2016- 17.

“I re­ally felt my sopho­more year,” se­nior guard Katie Lou Sa­muel­son re­called Fri­day, “that peo­ple were like, ‘ Yeah, they suck.’ … Sopho­more year, it was just like, ‘ Oh, let’s see what they can do.’ We kind of all had to fig­ure out dif­fer­ent roles.”

That didn’t take long. The Huskies found their iden­tity with help from Sa­muel­son ( av­er­aged 20.2 points per game), knock­ing off a pair of peren­nial pow­ers, Bay­lor and Notre Dame, in the sea­son’s first month to get to 8- 0. Their record would grow to 36- 0 be­fore fall­ing 66- 64 in over­time on a buzzer- beater by Mis­sis­sippi State’s Mor­gan Wil­liam at the Fi­nal Four. The stun­ning de­feat snapped the Huskies’ record 111- win­ning streak.

“This year, mostly … we kind of un­der­stand our roles,” Sa­muel­son said. “There’s not that much un­known from the three [ re­turn­ing starters]. We know what we need to bring every sin­gle day. Sopho­more year, it was like, ‘ We don’t know what we’re go­ing to be un­til we start play­ing.’”

Jes­sica Hill / As­so­ci­ated Press

UConn’s Crys­tal Dangerfield brings the ball up the court dur­ing the first half of an ex­hi­bi­tion game against Van­guard on Nov. 4 in Storrs.

Dar­ron Cum­mings / AP

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma watches dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion for the women’s NCAA Fi­nal Four on March 29 in Colum­bus, Ohio.

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