After UConn’s 33-point win over Cincinnati at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 29, Bearcats coach Jamelle Elliott said one of her team’s goals was to force UConn into as many passes as possible before taking a shot. And it worked. The Huskies scored only 67 points.
But here’s the thing about No. 1 UConn, which plays at Cincinnati’s First Third Arena on Saturday: Passing the ball with the goal of creating the best shot is as instinctive to this team as a bee’s flight to blossoms.
“I don’t care who shoots it and I don’t care at what point, but if we can rebound the basketball, if we can force a turnover, it would be a shame if we take all those really good offensive players we have and we don’t get a quality shot every time down the court,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’ve really accomplished that goal.”
Among the many things the Huskies do better than just about everyone else in the nation is set up baskets with assists. In fact, this team is on pace to be the best at it of any team in UConn history.
“With this team, it’s not even something we need to emphasize,” Stefanie Dolson said. “That’s because if anything we tend to overpass at times. We’ll pass up wide-open shots for contested shots. But it is one of our best assets.”
The Huskies (22-0, 9-0) come into Saturday’s game averaging 22.0 assists. That is on pace to break the program record (21.7) set by the 2001-02 team, which had 846 assists in 39 games. Their assist/turnover ratio is 1.88.
Auriemma has said many times that high school recruits must have high passing skills to be considered by the program. .
“If recruits can’t pass, generally we don’t recruit a kid,” Auriemma said. “So it’s part of what we believe in. If you’re not a good passer, it’s going to be hard to play for us.”
During Tuesday’s 93-56 win at Temple, its 28th straight dating to the start of last year’s NCAA Tournament, UConn dished a season-high 31 assists on 39 field goals. Breanna Stewart scored 37 points, making 15 field goals.
Moriah Jefferson’s 12 assists were one short of tying UConn’s single-game record. Bria Hartley’s 11 assists were a career high and helped fuel the first double-double (16 points) of her career.
Jefferson’s assist/turnover ratio of 3.25 is by far the highest any sophomore in program history has produced, dwarfing Diana Taurasi’s 2.51 in 2001-02.
“I told her that the idea was not to turn over the ball and have a lot of assists,” Auriemma. “If you can put those things together, you are well on your way to becoming a helluva player.”
Hartley’s assist/turnover ratio is not that far behind (2.40). And as a team, the Huskies have 484 assists on 710 field goals, a completion percentage of 68.1 percent. By comparison, the other nine teams in The American operate at 54.4 percent efficiency.
It’s also possible they will finish the season with four players with at least 100 assists; Jefferson (117), Hartley (106), Dolson (75) and Stewart (66).
“We have become a very good passing team, and as I’ve said before, it becomes contagious,” Auriemma said. “But sometimes we pass the ball so much, we pass up chances to drive the ball [to the hoop] and get to the foul line.”
Of course, the pass is irrelevant unless the recipient converts it. And UConn is good at that, shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 35.6 percent from three.
Dolson, who stands 6 feet 5, is a fabulous passer. She had 11 assists as part of her triple-double against Oregon on Nov. 20.
“I think I’ve always been a good passer but this year I’ve done a better job of making the right pass,” Dolson said.
UConn’s margin of victory (35.9) is also on pace to be the largest in program history, again surpassing that (35.4) of the 2001-02 team that featured Sue Bird, Asjha Jones, Tamika Williams, Swin Cash and Taurasi. It is even 1.0 better than its undefeated national champion of 2009-10.
And because of the scheduling quirk that led to 31 regular-season games this season, another undefeated national championship would leave the team with a record-setting 40 wins.
“I would say each team [he has coached at UConn] is different, each team’s somewhat special in its own right,” Auriemma said. “This team, because of Stefanie’s [Dolson] personality and Bria Hartley’s competitiveness, we have two seniors who I think are as good as any two seniors in the country at making sure that our team does what it needs to do. And everybody else just follows their lead.”
UConn has nine games remaining before the start of The American’s first postseason tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena. Two of those games will be against No. 5 Louisville, who the Huskies defeated in the national championship game last season.
They will continue to walk that road gingerly with only nine scholarship players, aware that another injury to a core player could jeopardize things.
“But we understand that everything we do around here is a collective, cumulative effort,” Hartley said.