During the bump and grind of its rigorous 63-38 win over South Florida on Sunday, No. 1 UConn discovered once again how difficult its trip to a possible ninth national championship will be.
Currently down to seven scholarship players without Morgan Tuck and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the Huskies (26-0) are going to be pushed, especially in the physical sense, by opponents sensing potential weakness in its lack of depth.
The thinking seems to be, if you can’t beat them, foul them out.
“I’m sure that’s going to be the strategy,” Stewart said. “If we were playing a team that didn’t have a deep bench, we’d try to get some of their [the opponent’s] best players in foul trouble.”
And with a week to prepare for UConn, the Bulls focused on how to stop UConn’s multiplicity of scorers, particularly its leading scorer, Breanna Stewart. They did a good job.
“It was pretty difficult,” Stewart said.
As a result, Stewart took just 12 shots in 33 minutes and her 15 points left her two shy of 1,000. She will take care of that Wednesday when UConn plays Central Florida at the XL Center.
More history could happen, as well. Bria Hartley now has 501 assists and needs just three rebounds to join the very exclusive 1,500-500-500 club with Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi. She picked up her 500th assist on Sunday.
“To know I can be a playmaker on this team makes me very excited,” Hartley said.
But as hard as the Bulls worked to hold UConn to a season-low 63 points, and just 22 field goals, they couldn’t score enough to make it matter. That’s because there isn’t a better defender than the Huskies, who lead the nation in fewest points allowed (47.7) and field goal percentage (31.0).
“We just play defense, figure out what we’ve got to do to shut them [the opponent] down and we do it,’’ Geno Auriemma said. “Some of the teams we’ve had [at UConn] were better defensive teams. But I don’t particularly think being a good defensive team is anything new [at UConn]. It’s been going on here for a long time.
“Everybody talks about how many points we score because we’re able to do something that’s hard to do, recruit high school All-Americans that score 16 million points and get them to play defense in college. It’s not easy to do, but we get them to do it.’’
In their first 26 games, the Huskies have held their opponent to less than 40 points eight times. South Florida’s shooting percentage (26.3) was just the latest example of UConn’s shutdown capability.
The Bulls top two scorers, Inga Orekhova and Courtney Williams, combined to shoot 9-for-31 with 24 points.
Guarded by Moriah Jefferson, Williams missed her first 10 shots and was 3-for-18. Orekhova, one of The American Athletic Conference’s top three-point shooters, was 6-for-13 with four threes. But their teammates scored just six field goals and shot 6-for-26.
Among the many things Jefferson has done so well this season is play defense. And her performance on Sunday really pleased Auriemma.
“South Florida has two guys, in particular, that are really hard to guard,” Auriemma said. “In the [recent] past you would just say, Kelly [Faris] has one of them [defensively] and we’ll figure out who’s got the other. Going into this year we weren’t really quite sure who was going to guard who.
“But Moriah heard me complain about that and has taken it upon herself to be one of those guys. And she should be able to be; she’s quick, a tough kid, kind of smart. She’s just not big enough to be like Kelly was, but she can still make it difficult [for players]. That’s a decision that she made. And that’s what’s going to make her a great player – playing at both ends of the floor.’’
Of course, those who play for Auriemma really don’t have any choice. Playing defense with the skill and intensity he demands is essential to playing at all.
“If you come to Connecticut, you’re going to be playing with a lot of really good offensive players. And when you put 10 really good offensive players on the same team something has got to give.
“The guys who work the hardest at the other end of the floor know they’re going to play more than the guys that don’t. That kind of keeps everybody kind of engaged in what the goal is.
“If you came here [thinking] about how quickly you can score 1,000 points, that’s not going to work. It takes a while to get to that point. But I think we’ve been at that point [defensively] since the late 1980s. … This is what we do. We put a tremendous amount of effort into it and we do it.’’