Kiah Stokes has missed six games this season with a stress reaction in her right shin. Morgan Tuck has missed three games with a bone bruise in her right knee. Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart each miss two games with a sprained left ankle. And Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed one game with a concussion.
The Huskies pressed forward in each situation without a noticeable letdown. They learned today just how much junior center Stefanie Dolson means to this team when she was sidelined by flu-like symptoms.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said playing without Dolson was the team’s biggest challenge to date following a 71-65 win over St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena. So much of the offense runs through her. Not to mention that she is averaging 13.8 points on a nation’s best 61.2 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 26.6 minutes.
“She was good last night. She was great,’’ Auriemma said. “And she woke up this morning and went down for pregame for our walkthrough and pregame, and she was just shaking like she had a fever. And we thought, `OK, well, we’ve still got four hours before we play. So maybe.’ Then we showed up here and I said, `So what do you think?’ She says, `No. I just can’t even stand up.’ And it was right after we had put the starting lineups in. So we had put the starting lineups in and then she comes in and she’s like all wobbly and she’s like, `I can’t do this.’ So then it was like roll the dice.’’
The Huskies shot just 45.1 percent from the field, including 42.9 percent in the first half. They matched their season-low in shots attempted (51). They also had only 14 assists, which was their third lowest total of the season and down substantially from their nation’s-best average of 21.4.
Stokes drew her first career start in place of Dolson, playing 15 minutes (seven points, four rebounds, one assist, two blocks). Tuck saw 23 minutes off the bench as they combined for 14 points, nine rebounds and two assists.
“It just goes to show you how much Stefanie means to our offense,’’ Auriemma said. “Playing without her, we’re not the same team, obviously. A huge portion of our offense runs through Stefanie. People keep talking about you don’t have a true point guard so-to-speak like St. John’s has. And we don’t have anybody like (Nadirah McKenith) right now, so that’s why we use Stefanie as kind of our point guard. So a lot of stuff goes through her. And it was a major struggle because they’re a good defensive team.
“It would be different if we had practiced with her not playing. Like `let’s spend a lot of time before tomorrow’s game going over what happens when Stefanie’s not in the game.’ Maybe there’s a couple stretches, four minutes, five minutes, but not an entire game. That’s a credit to her, and how much she’s made herself a big part of what we’re doing and how invaluable she is. You saw that today. There’s no better example than today how important she is to our team.
“We talked about that in the locker room after the game that when we ran a couple things at the end of the game we got Kaleena (Mosqueda-Lewis) in the post, we got Kaleena on a cut and we got Kelly (Faris) on a screen coming off. And that was something we could really build on. That’s something to be really proud of that when we needed to get a certain shot we got it and when we needed to get people the ball where we wanted them to get it they got it. And we got a couple of buckets in the lane too. Kiah had a bucket and Morgan had a bucket. I thought those two gave us a presence in the post that we were lacking without Stefanie.’’
Here are Faris’ thoughts about having to play without Dolson …
“She’s become a huge part of what we do offensively and defensively,’’ Faris said. “A lot of our offense kind of runs through her. Whether it’s she’s getting somebody open or we’re passing her the ball and driving. Whatever it may be, somewhere or another, the offense kind of stems a lot off of what she does. And so there’s going to be instances where she may not be in the game for whatever reason, and we’re going to have to really buckle down and work on that and figure out who’s going to step up.’’