Kiah Stokes, a stealth member of UConn’s core of super seven, landed inadvertently on the foot of a male practice player just as Thursday morning’s shoot-around at the XL Center was ending.
The Huskies had played seven of their first nine games with four arms tied behind their backs, one pair belonging to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the other to Morgan Tuck. Both have been out since the win over Stanford on Nov. 11.
Mosqueda-Lewis, an All-American and prolific outside shooter, has a compressed ulnar nerve in her right elbow. Tuck, a versatile and emerging post player, had scheduled arthroscopic surgery on her cranky knee.
And even though the Huskies had survived their loss by winning every game, Geno Auriemma, a natural-born worrier, was crossing his fingers that nothing else would happen to further crowd his training room and shorten his bench.
Well, something did happen Thursday. And when Stokes wasn’t immediately able to shake off the pain, UConn put her into a walking boot and took her out of the lineup for Thursday’s game against UC Davis at the XL Center.
That left Auriemma with only eight players, just six who weren’t walk-ons.
“The starting lineup wasn’t very difficult, was it?,” Auriemma said. “It is getting aggravating now. It is at the point where you don’t know what’s going to even happen in shoot around.”
But as the remainder of the nation has come to understand, UConn is not a normal program. The loss of three quality talents might be enough to slow some teams, even against a low mid-major such as the Aggies.
UConn hardly flinched, certainly after the first four minutes when they had as many points and fouls (four).
Six UConn players, with some help from a seventh, freshman walk-on Tierney Lawlor, who drained two threes in 12 minutes, were more than enough to pound UC Davis by 60 points (97-37).
Now comes the important 12-day exam break. During that time, Auriemma hopes his team can become whole again. And if it does, it is likely to be a holy terror once American Athletic Conference play finally begins Dec. 29, after two more non-conference matchups with No. 2 Duke (Dec. 17) and California (Dec. 22).
“I’m glad [Mosqueda-Lewis and Tuck] are coming back and that Kiah will only be out a couple days,” Auriemma said. “We’ve got the next couple days off from practice anyway.”
UConn (10-0) has performed beyond expectations, hammering mid-majors and handling recognized national programs Stanford, Maryland, Oregon, Penn State and Ohio State with relative ease. The Huskies have won those five games by an average of 24.4 points.
“We’ve done some great things in spite of the injuries,” Auriemma said. “We have played some good teams and played well. With the exception of last Sunday [the 70-49 win over Ohio State] we have played really good basketball at both ends of the floor.
“There is not a lot that you can say about what our rotation is or any of the other issues. It is what it is, and the kids know it. There is no choice, they don’t have a choice but to play well and stay out of foul trouble. Sometimes when you have that much pressure on you it is not bad, not bad at all.”
Depending on one’s point of view, the Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium could be UConn’s last obstacle to another undefeated regular-season.
Baylor [Jan. 13 in Waco] is not the same without Brittney Griner and Louisville [Feb. 9 at Gampel Pavilion, March 3 in Louisville] has traditionally weakened in UConn’s wake during their days together – and two national championship games – in the Big East.
The players that have played for UConn have generally been exemplary. Bria Hartley scored 25 points against the Aggies, 20 in the first half. Shooting just 22 percent from three-point range coming into the game, she left it hitting 8 of 9 shots, 5-for-5 from three.
“I think [being short-handed] tests how tough we are as a team and our maturity because people have to step up,” Hartley said. “Even before Kiah was hurt, we were already in that mindset.”
And sophomore Breanna Stewart, who had just one assist and no three-point attempts against Ohio State, rediscovered her tough with 19 points, a career-high 13 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and one steal against the Aggies.
“I think it [being short-handed] might be harder for the coach,” Stewart said. “He only has one person to choose on the bench to sub in for five people. With us, I think we use this opportunity to get in better shape.
“We knew [Thursday] we were going to be playing more minutes than we were when we had seven players. It’s important to get comfortable with everyone on the team and make sure everything runs smoothly.”