As well as freshmen Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson had played through two exhibition games and in the season opener against the College of Charleston, the transition from high school to the elite level of Division I college basketball was not going to be seamless. Even former UConn All-Americans and Olympic gold medalists Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi struggled at times as freshmen.
Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson experienced their own problems in the first half of Sunday’s 81-50 win at then-No. 16 Texas A&M. They combined for four points (2-of-9 FG), five rebounds and one assist in 23 minutes.
Stewart, the Big East Freshman of the Week, picked up her second foul with 16:16 left in the half and had to spend the next 7:06 on the bench. She had four points (2-of-5 FG) and two rebounds in seven minutes.
Tuck had three rebounds in 10 scoreless minutes (0-of-4 FG). And Jefferson had one assist and did not attempt a shot in six minutes.
“When you’re playing a couple exhibition games and you’re playing against teams that are overmatched and you’re playing at home I think that’s one thing,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “And when you go on the road and you’re playing against athletes that are as good as you are it’s something completely different. I’m glad they didn’t come out and play great. I’m glad they didn’t come out and just dominate the game in the first 20 minutes because then they would think that this is going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy. I thought in the first half they really, really struggled individually and as a group. No question.’’
Despite these struggles each of them demonstrated the type of character and competitiveness they possess in the second half. They helped the Huskies bury the Aggies by generating a combined 17 points (5-of-11 FG), eight rebounds and three assists in 38 minutes.
Stewart had seven points (2-of-3 3-pointers) and four rebounds in 12 minutes in the half. Tuck had six points (3-of-7 FG), one rebound and one assist in 11 minutes. And Jefferson had the best all-around line of the trio with four points (0-of-1 FG), three rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes.
What Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson endured at Reed Arena is part of the growth process. And they will become better players because of this experience.
“All three of them came back in the second half and they made an impact on the game. And I think that’s the best way to learn,’’ Auriemma said. “I thought Breanna really responded well with a couple of the plays she made. And I thought Moriah was good the whole game with the ball. She just didn’t want to like take the next step. It’s like she did just enough and then backed off. I asked her one time whether she attempted any shots and she said, `no.’ I said, `Why? In practice every time you get an opening you shoot the ball. Why?’ But, again, it’s just different for them. But if this is the worst they’re going to look we’re going to be alright.’’
With the freshmen suffering through some growing pains against the Aggies, Auriemma praised the leadership of seniors Kelly Faris (10 points, two rebounds, game-high six assists in 28 minutes) and Caroline Doty (five points, four assists in 18 minutes) and junior Stefanie Dolson (career-high 24 points, added six rebounds, five assists and three steals in 29 minutes).
“Without Bria Hartley we know what are limitations are,’’ Auriemma said. “We know what our warts are without Bria. That puts an awful lot of pressure on Caroline and then it puts an awful lot of pressure on Moriah. So we really needed Caroline to play great and she did. And she needed to give us a lot of minutes and she needed to make a lot of the plays that she made. Because that allows Moriah to just come along and do her thing and kind of get over the hump that you have to get over as a freshman. And you would hope that that’s … Caroline Doty’s won a lot of games at Connecticut and I would think that means something. That you remember what kind of plays you have to make and what you have to say in the huddle and what kind of leadership you have to provide. And Stefanie’s Stefanie. She’s kind of the personality of our team. Exactly the way she played (Sunday) was who we are. That’s who we are. The way Stefanie played that’s our team.
“The first five minutes of the second half Kelly kept her scholarship because I was about ready to strangle her at halftime. One of the things that I worry about for seniors is they try to do so many things. They want to accomplish everything every possession and they want to kind of leave it all on the floor. It’s their senior year and they want to guard all five players. They want to score every time. They want to make every assist. They want to make every play. And nobody is more prideful of that than Kelly, for sure. And my job all year long is just going to be to slow her down and just kind of get her to play at a nice pace. And that’s exactly what she did in the second half.
“So the freshmen are going to get all the attention because that’s just the way life is. It’s all everybody wants to talk about. But, in reality, Caroline and Stefanie and Kelly when it comes time to win games I trust them more than I trust a lot of other people.’’