If there were challenges traversing the first regular-season in American Athletic Conference history, UConn made them seem mostly internal, hard to see in public once the ball was tipped.
Truth is, there were times when Geno Auriemma simply didn’t know how many players he would have to play or practice with on a roster trimmed tightly with nine scholarship players and two walk-ons.
And right from the start, just two games into the season, those numbers began to dwindle with the loss of Morgan Tuck (knee) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (elbow) for eight games after the Stanford win.
So Auriemma, a master of many trades as a young man, took up another as a veteran coach – juggler.
Of course, he was juggling assets no one else in the nation has, his usual core of high school All-Americans with interchangeable, superior skill sets. And those players made it seem like nothing bubbling under the surface had a chance to break ground.
The end result was UConn’s 31-0 season, the extension of its winning streak to 37, highlighted by an 18-0 run through the conference. The Huskies won each game by at least 17 points and never trailed by more than seven in any of them.
“When you have a team like we do, you tend to win the conference championship,” Auriemma said.
Now begins the fun part begins. On Saturday, the Huskies start play against either Central Florida or Cincinnati, who were playing in the 8-9 first-round game Friday,
“Now it all comes down the mental state of the team,” said Stefanie Dolson, a member of the AAC’s first team, its defensive player of the year and co-winner of the sportsmanship award. “It’s the end of the season. It’s a matter of who is going to step up every game and deal the physicality and toughness every team is going to bring. You need to last the full 40 minutes and not let yourself get tired.”
Auriemma is taking nothing for granted.
“I don’t think there’s a team in America right now that’s saying if they were to lose their two top players we’re still going to the Final Four,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think there is a team that says, well, if we have this injury or that injury we will still be OK. We are all in the same boat. The only difference is, we don’t have to do it for five months.”
UConn comes into the weekend as perhaps the greatest favorite ever in the history conference postseason history. They won their 18 conference games by an average of 37.4 points. And that included two wins over Louisville, the second seed, by an average of 18.5.
In those games, they never allowed more than 64 points – once to Rutgers, once to Louisville. And seven times their opponent was held to 40 or less.
The Huskies have four of the AAC’s 11 first-team players – Dolson, Moriah Jefferson, Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart, the AAC’s player of the year.
“I was very surprised about [to win] the defensive player award,” Dolson said. ‘It’s not I didn’t think I had the stats or the look of a defensive player. I think the coaches just recognized I helped my teammates as much as I could by making them take tough shots.”
No player in the league is as tuned-in right now as Hartley. And no one has played as quick-paced or error-free this season as Jefferson, whose assist/turnover ratio is 2.96.
Dolson, Hartley and Stewart are also among 15 players named to the Wooden Award ballot making them eligible for the Wooden All-American team which will be announced during the NCAA regionals.
Now with the postseason coming, we need to make sure we are extremely strong every game,” Stewart said. “It’s March when the best basketball is played. There is no time for let-ups. We’ve been tweaking some things in practice and now we are really looking forward [to the tournament].”
Hartley comes into the tournament averaging 18.7 points and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor (41.3 from three) in her last 10 games. And in combination with Jefferson, their defensive held Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel, one of Louisville’s three all AAC picks, to 4-for-14 and nine points in 36 minutes during UConn’s 68-48 win on Monday night.
“When the NCAA Tournament starts there is going to be a lot of the same nonsense that one else can win but us,” Auriemma said. “We know how that ended last year [when No. 1 Baylor lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual finalist Louisville].”