The Huskies are poised to take over the top spot in the national polls this week in the aftermath of Saturday’s 61-35 victory at No. 1 Stanford. They have often made so much of what they have accomplished through the first 11 games this season look easy.
But keep in mind, though, that UConn features freshmen Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson and sophomores Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Brianna Banks and Kiah Stokes in its primary 10-man rotation. With this much youth involved comes a great deal of uncertainty from game to game.
Walking into sold-out Maples Pavilion to face a team that had won 82 straight games at home, there was some apprehension on the part of UConn coach Geno Auriemma centering on exactly how the underclassmen would handle the situation.
“I was worried about that coming in,’’ Auriemma said. “I wasn’t sure how we would react to this kind of game this early in the season on the road. I was a little bit concerned about that. Morgan’s only practiced a couple days and I knew she probably wouldn’t be able to help us a lot. Moriah hasn’t been healthy so I knew she wouldn’t be able to help us a lot. But I was hoping Stewie and Brianna Banks would give us some solid minutes.’’
The youngsters played a significant role against Stanford. Mosqueda-Lewis scored 12 of her game-high 19 points in the second half and added six rebounds in 34 minutes. Stewart had nine points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.
Stewart’s impact was immediately felt when she entered the game in the first half . She scored seven straight points in a span of 1:56 to cap a 12-0 run and stake the Huskies to a 22-7 lead with 9:56 left in the half.
Banks, who likely would not have gotten off the bench in a game like this last season, finished with three points, one rebound, one assist, one steal and did not commit a turnover in nine minutes. She continues to play with confidence.
Jefferson, who is still being limited due to illness, played four minutes. Tuck returned after missing the previous two games with a right knee bone bruise, playing three minutes.
Stokes missed her third straight game with a stress reaction in her right shin.
“The younger guys they did what they’re good at,’’ Auriemma said. “If you tell Kaleena, `Kaleena, we need 25 points from you every night in order to be a good team,’ I don’t know that that would work. But if you tell her, `Hey, look, just go out there and do what you’re good at’ then she gets 19. And that’s kind of been our approach.
“I thought (Banks) gave us some good minutes. You can’t go from not playing at all last year in these kind of game to all of a sudden thinking that you’re going to be able to do a lot more than she did (Saturday). But just the fact that she looked a little bit comfortable out there and contributed I think that makes her feel better. And Stewie, that first half she came out and was like gangbusters. Then in the second half she kind of disappeared a little bit. So even in games like this you start to see things that are going to help these young guys because they’re only going to get better. It’s not like they’re going to get any worse from this. So I was happy with all those guys.’’
The performance of the underclassmen did not go unnoticed by the upperclassmen either.
“I think they handled it very well,’’ junior Stefanie Dolson said. “I think in the beginning they were a little shaky, a little nervous. But they definitely came out and played a great game. Stewie and Kaleena. It’s a hard environment to play in. And we knew coming into it that the upperclassmen, just kind of make sure our mentality was right and our heads were straightened. I’m very proud of how Stewie handled herself, how Kaleena handled herself and Bri Banks handled herself. They all played extremely hard and just outworked the other team.’’
Here are Auriemma’s thoughts on the magnitude of this win at this point in the season …
“We could go out the Oregon and play terrible and everybody will say, `See, they’ve got a hangover from beating Stanford,’’’ Auriemma said. “Who knows. Right now all we know is we came out here, we had a goal in mind and we accomplished it and we move on. Nobody’s giving us anything for doing it. We come here, we play and we do what we’ve got to do and go home. If we would’ve have lost we’d do the same thing. If we win …’’