The Huskies did not have the numbers be to be a pressing team last season. Once Samarie Walker bolted and transferred to Kentucky in late January, they were left with six players in their rotation. Kelly Faris (33.2), Maya Moore (33.0), Bria Hartley (31.8) and Tiffany Hayes (31.7) all averaged more than 31 minutes per game last season.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma could not afford to have his players expending an inordinate amount of energy picking up full court. But the addition of freshmen Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Brianna Banks and Kiah Stokes and some improvement from Heather Buck this season has given Auriemma the luxury of being able to able to extend his defense fullcourt for extended stretches.
And the Huskies’ fullcourt pressure has been a significant problem for the opposition.
“That’s the strength of our team,’’ Auriemma said. “Right now our guards … We’ve got a bunch of them and they all I think have certain skills that kind of translate pretty well into fullcourt stuff. And they’re good with the ball in the open floor and we’re a pretty good shooting team. I think it’s an appropriate way to play for this particular team. Last year we couldn’t do it for a lot of different reasons, but this year it works for this particular team.’’
Nine players are averaging at least 15.4 minutes for UConn through the first seven games. Not since the 2000-01 season when nine players averaged at least 16.9 minutes has Auriemma had as many players logging this many minutes.
The Huskies have forced 161 turnovers this season (23.0), including 30 against Towson Wednesday. They have also generated 108 steals (15.4).
Led by Faris (23) and Hayes (20), five players have at least 11 steals for UConn. Mosqueda-Lewis (13), Hartley (12) and Banks (11) are also in double figures.
“We’ve actually been working on the press a lot lately, in practice against our practice players and against each other,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “It’s a lot of reads. It is being athletic, but at the same time it’s more about being able to see where your opponent is and being able to read where their next pass is going to go.’’
UConn’s high-energy, pressure defense has also served as a tremendous catalyst for its offense. The Huskies have scored 206 points off of turnovers this season (29.4) and 99 points in transition (14.1).
“Coach wants us to make as many possessions as we can for ourselves to give ourselves a better chance to score more often,’’ Mosqueda-Lewis said. “Especially since we’ve been having a lot of turnovers lately, so as many steals as we can get is how many we want to try to go for.’’
The Huskies wrapped up a five-game, 10-day stretch Wednesday. With Thanksgiving thrown in there, there has not been ample time for the Huskies to work on things during practice.
That will change now as UConn is in the midst of a four-day lay-off before meeting No. 4 Texas A&M Tuesday at the XL Center. Auriemma, for one, is looking forward to the downtime. It will give him some quality time to work on many areas of the game in practice.
“When there’s a lot of games it’s not bad because you’re actually getting some game stuff done,’’ Auriemma said. “But you really don’t get the opportunity to put some practice time in. And little by little between now and exams, we want to get a little bit better at everything. Obviously, we want to just figure out ways we can maximize what we have. How many different ways can we use our fullcourt pressure? How many different ways can we play our halfcourt defense? Offensively, how many ways can we move people around so that we’re not easy to defend? These are all things that you go to practice and you work on. And because we have such a young group, there’s a lot of fundamental stuff that we have to do every day that gets lost when you have games. If you’re constantly preparing for games … I know players like that, but for us you’re worried about the other team sometimes and you’re not doing enough individual work for yourself. So (today) and Saturday are going to be great because we’ll get an opportunity to do that before we start preparing for Texas A&M.’’
Here is both Auriemma’s and Hayes’ assessment of the team after seven games …
“I think when the season began you’re not quite sure what to expect,’’ Auriemma said. “It kind of reminded me of those couple of years after Diana (Taurasi) graduated and you’re trying to figure out, `What’s the new dynamic going to be on the team when you lose somebody like that.’ Then a game like Stanford came along and surprised me a little bit that we were able to do some of the things we did. Tuesday night coming up in the Texas A&M game, I’ll be anxious to see whether we’re going to be able to respond to some of the things Texas A&M is going to do to us that’s way different than Stanford did. So I think we learned a little bit after the Stanford game about who we are, and we’ll learn a little more next Tuesday. And that’s why you play these games, to find out how well we’re adapting to life without Maya Moore.’’
Said Hayes: “I feel pretty good. I feel like we’ve gotten better since the (Fairleigh Dickinson) game Coach said we played really bad. We’ve definitely got to work on coming out strong in every game and playing hard from start to finish and not just putting one half together or playing good for 20 minutes and 10 minutes we have a bad set. So we’ve just got to work on being consistent the whole game.’’