UConn women ready for non-conference road test against No. 7 Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — Two seasons before leading the UConn women’s basketball team to the first of its 18 Final Four appearances, Geno Auriemma offered a glimpse into his scheduling philosophy.
Auriemma agreed to play in the 1988 Cardinal Classic even though it meant facing national powerhouse Stanford on the road.
Auriemma certainly could have arranged for his Huskies to stay at home and get a couple of easy wins to push the team’s record to 10-1. Instead, he knew the best way to prepare for the upcoming Big East schedule would be to get his players outside of their comfort zone. Losses to No. 9 Stanford by 19 points and to Virginia Tech by two the following day in addition to one three weeks earlier to Duke at the VCU Classic toughened his team up. The Huskies would win the Big East regular season and tournament titles to secure the program’s first NCAA tournament bid.
Fast forward to Monday night and once against Auriemma has found a way to step away from the conference portion of the schedule to test his team as UConn will play at No. 7 Texas (7 p.m., ESPN2).
UConn has already played five non-conference games against ranked teams, but Auriemma didn’t hesitate in agreeing to play the star-studded Texas team. The Huskies also have February non-conference games on the road against defending national champion South Carolina and at home against a Louisville team that might take away some of UConn’s first-place votes in the two national polls after undefeated Cardinals trounced No. 2 Notre Dame on national television.
“Those are three pretty good teams and two of them are on the road. I know coaches have this idea of our conference is so tough that we don’t want to play anybody outside of our conference. I think it is the most bogus thing I’ve ever heard,” Auriemma said. “We played in the toughest conference in women’s basketball before our (Big East) conference broke up and we loved playing non-conference games in January and February. You just get out and play in somewhat of a meaningless game. If you are in a conference where you are trying to win a championship, this game means nothing, it is just a game. It generally has nothing to do with NCAA seeding either, nobody’s seedings are going to get hurt, somebody can help themselves.
“I love games like this. I especially love them on the road and I especially love them on Monday night after a Saturday game because when you get to the NCAA tournament this is exactly what you get with a game on Saturday or Sunday and a game on Monday or Tuesday. And the game after this one is usually harder than the one that you just played so to me there is absolutely no downside.”
UConn has spent more weeks at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll than any other program, but that has never been what drives Auriemma. He wants to give his team the best chance at success in the postseason. It was why he pushed for the American Athletic Conference schedule to be cut from 18 to 16 games so he could add a couple more challenging non-conference road games. His current squad seems to embrace these kinds of challenges. If the Huskies win on Monday, it would make the first time in program history that they have won five straight true road games against teams ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
“We’ve been in this situation where teams will be fired up like this,” UConn senior forward Gabby Williams said. “It poses a different challenge every single time. It is not something that we can take lightly. I think we get excited for these games because they don’t come around that often.”
Before the team headed to Texas to meet up with Houston on Saturday, Auriemma said he expects things to be a bit chaotic.
“I talked to the team about it and I think it is going to be a crazy environment,” Auriemma said. “This is the first time we’ve played them (with this group of players) when either of us have been on campus. Every game we played them has been at a neutral site. It seems like we played them every year or every other (year) between the NCAA tournament (and) our regularly scheduled games with them.
“I think we had them twice in a row in the NCAA tournament and some event (in San Antonio) so we’ve always managed to play them on neutral courts. This is going to be on campus. I think this is going to be crazy. I think the fact that they haven’t beaten us is going to be a real issue. It is going to be hard for us because I think they are going to be off the charts crazy about beating us. I don’t know if there is a lot of love lost between us and them. Very talented, they may have as talented a roster as there is in the country, at least as athletic as there is in the country.”
Senior guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty are pro prospects and the team’s leading scorer is junior Lashann Higgs, a player who has had success against the Huskies in the past. They combine for 42 points per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the field with nearly twice as many assists as turnovers.
“We’ve had games when the guards have been good and we have done a good job defending them, so it is just another game and we are looking forward to it,” UConn sophomore guard Crystal Dangerfield said.
“I understand that the game is (nearly) sold out, I understand that they have never beaten us so they are going to be ready for it and we are going to be ready for it too.”
Texas coach Karen Aston has played UConn enough times to understand which potholes her team needs to avoid stepping into.
“They score the ball,” Aston said. “I have played them the last few years and gone through the preparation. I think what gets lost in his team’s performance is defense. They are underrated defensively. I think what is probably going to be a positive leap for him is Azurá’s length, they will look different defensively. I don’t know if they will look much differently offensively. Having the ability to bring that quality of an opponent into the Erwin Center is always a positive for your fans and your players and I think our fans are looking forward to it.”
Texas played UConn in the 2015 and 2016 NCAA tournaments and last season they met in the Jimmy V Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena. The margin of victory has gone from 51 to 21 to 18 points. These games have given Aston a chance to see what makes UConn the best program in the country.
“It is recruiting because he is getting the best players, getting the most polished offensive players for sure and he is smart enough to do that, he is capable of it,” Aston said. “It would start that you have to recruit some players who not only have a mentality that they want to compete against the best but they also have the skill level. Even if you look at my freshmen this year, I don’t know if they are ready to play at the level we have to play at, but I think eventually the fact that they can score the ball, it will help us in the future. You have to be able to score, that is eventually what bit us last year is we got bogged down offensively and couldn’t shoot as well as we needed to shoot. You have to match their point production, it is all about recruiting. I think he is a terrific coach and there is no denying that but he has really good players and I think you have to try to recruit at the same level he is recruiting at.”
Texas has more than held its own on the recruiting front. On the current rosters of the two teams, the Longhorns have more players who were rated in the top 10 and top 20 in ESPN’s annual recruiting rankings than UConn.
That list includes Atkins, the No. 3 player in 2014 who Auriemma got to know when she earned a spot on the U.S. U-23 national team. McCarty also took part in the U-23 training camp that Auriemma attended.
“I think Texas’ group, they are talented and they are experienced and I did have a chance to spend some time at USA Basketball with Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins,” Auriemma said. “They are two of the nicest kids I have ever been around and I love the way they play, I love their energy and I am looking forward to Monday night and I think they have a great future, they are a tough group and it should be a great test for our guards too.”
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