UNCASVILLE — Geno Auriemma was more tempted to give the starting five for the second-ranked UConn women’s basketball team a standing eight count than some words of advice at the first media timeout in Sunday’s women’s Jimmy V Classic.
A bigger, more aggressive Texas team was already up by four points with a pair of free throws coming when play resumed. The Longhorns had corralled six offensive rebounds in the opening minutes and the second-longest winning streak in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history appeared to be in serious jeopardy.
Auriemma greeted the Huskies by offering a challenge and his players responded in a major way en route to the Huskies beating No. 14 Texas 72-54 before a crowd of 9,014 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I pulled out probably my best 30-second timeout speech that I save for special occasions,” Auriemma said. “When they came over, I said you guys can take a deep breath, this game is over. You don’t have to worry about anything, they just kicked our butts for five minutes and this is going to keep happening for the next 35 minutes so don’t worry about it.
“I thought this is the way it is going to go for the whole game. That they were just going to overwhelm us with all that size and athletic ability. They were tough, they were active and seemed like we were playing 5 on 7. I told them one time it felt like a college team playing a high school team right now.”
Alecia Sutton hit a 3-pointer to give the Longhorns a 17-11 lead with 1:48 left in the opening quarter.
UConn sophomore forward Napheesa Collier hit back-to-back baskets including one shortly before the first quarter came to an end and the Huskies were only down two after a less than stellar opening 10 minutes.
“Once we settled in a little bit, got the ball moving a little bit, people have to step up and make some shots,” Auriemmma said. “Once they did, Pheesa (Collier) and Kia (Nurse) especially, we got more comfortable. Defensively we were constantly making adjustments finding what works. It was a scare that first five minutes, I think our guys were stunned about the way the game started, we are not used to that. You take these five minutes and Thursday’s first five minutes (when UConn led nationally-ranked DePaul 19-1), pretty big difference.”
UConn was outrebounded 31-24 overall, but for the remainder of the game actually had more offensive rebounds and more second-chance points than Texas did.
The Huskies rebounded from a sluggish start to drub the Longhorns, extending their winning streak to 82.
“I thought that was the turning point,” Texas coach Karen Aston said. “We did have a mismatch in there and Kelsey (Lang) is playing well. We didn’t move for her. You can look at her seven turnovers and say, ‘gosh, Kelsey why are you turning it over so much?’ But we are all standing there with people around her, we didn’t move into space and that is a key thing.
“They did a pretty good job of picking on some younger kids and I thought our young kids got picked on a little bit today. The extra possessions hurt, the beginning of the game and the first half there were maybe a few more things open than we expected and we got rushed. We could easily of taken our time. We overpassed a little bit and I thought he made some good adjustments with Kelsey and Brooke (McCarty). We weren’t patient enough.”
In the eyes of the UConn players, the changes were more about a mindset than altering the strategy.
“He was just being honest,” UConn junior forward Gabby Williams said. “We didn’t come out tough, we were getting our butts whipped and we acted like we were surprised that they came out that physical. They prepared us for everything, they told us what they were going to do and they had the scout. It is not any Xs and Os, it was just us having to be tough.
“It was mostly mental, getting it out of our minds that teams aren’t going to roll over and why would they, we have a target on our back. We have the Connecticut across our chest so we just have to be expecting that teams are going to come after us.”
While Texas (2-4) got in the early punches, it was UConn which landed the haymakers late in each quarter. In the final three minutes of the four quarters the Huskies outscored Texas 23-8.
Collier had seven points and Nurse had three in a 10-3 run late in the second quarter. The Huskies had the final six points of the third quarter and held the Longhorns scoreless for the final 5:06 of the fourth quarter.
“We can’t beat teams just on talent, it is because we work hard, we have [to have] that effort,” Williams said. “It is almost offensive [to hear] ‘they are so talented’ because they don’t see the work that goes in.”
Collier, despite giving up inches and pounds to nearly every Texas player assigned to guard her, was relentless once she took that deep breath Auriemma asked his team to take.
UConn forward Napheesa Collier (24) did a little bit of everything in the Huskies win against Texas.
Collier had 24 points, eight rebounds, two assists, five steals and two blocked shots for UConn (7-0). Nurse ended up with 15 points, four rebounds, five assists, Katie Lou Samuelson had all 12 of her points in the second half while Williams added 11 points, six assists and four steals.
“It was a great win to see how we can grind things out and push through for a full 40 minutes,” Nurse said. “Texas came out ready to go, gave us a test and we had to fight back.”
UConn also got solid contributions off the bench from junior center Natalie Butler (four points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in 26 minutes) and freshman guard Crystal Dangerfied (six points coming on a pair of timely 3-pointers in 19 minutes).
Samuelson got on the board with 4:51 left in the third quarter when she hit a 3-pointer. It was the 100th 3-pointer of her career. Brooke McCarty had 15 points and Lang finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Texas junior guard Ariel Atkins only played six minutes after a first-half collision.