Geno says Huskies will be challenged
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 turningof-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.”