As UConn prepares for the final days of the regular season, games at South Florida and Notre Dame that will determine if the Huskies win the Big East regular-season championship, Geno Auriemma knows he can hope for just one thing.
He wants each player to maximize effort to the cause, beginning Saturday in Tampa, Fla., against the Bulls. And then whatever happens Monday in South Bend will be easier to digest.
And that most certainly will include his freshmen – Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson. They are now as important to his team as the upperclassmen, each delegated to roles off the bench that the Huskies need performed capably if they are to win the championships at stake.
But like most freshmen, the three have had their moments. They’ve rolled at full boil at times, simmered at others. Jefferson has had to learn to be a point guard. Tuck has been dealing with a troublesome right knee.
And Stewart, the reigning high school player of the year, has been trying to work her way through an intricate maze of physical and conceptual challenges.
“There may be some players who go through it [the freshman year] and are just fine,” senior Kelly Faris said. “It all depends on their mentality and personality. I’ve been there. I have had to do it. But every player, in general, is going to have a time and their little slumps. That’s the way it goes. You are not going to be perfect all the time. You are not going to be perfect every game. But the biggest part is how you respond. That’s the key.”
Stewart came strong out of the block. She scored double-figures in each of her first seven games with over 20 points five times. She surpassed Maya Moore (165 points) for the most points scored in program history in the first 10 games by netting 169, scoring 27 against Hartford on Dec. 22 to do it.
But she has scored at least 20 just once since then (against Syracuse) and has struggled noticeably in games, like the night she was scoreless and did not have a rebound in the 76-70 loss to Baylor.
“The people Coach recruits are usually the best of the best, and in high school you are not always going to be playing against top competition,” Faris said. “And you don’t have to work as hard to score the majority of your team’s points.
“When you get to college, you suddenly begin to realize that you weren’t working as hard as you should have been in high school. Then things get into your head, coach gets on you, the older players start beating on you. Put that all together.”
Now it seems that Stewart is picking up steam again. She followed a 16-point, eight-rebound effort Saturday at Seton Hall with 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals in Tuesday’s 40-point romp over Pittsburgh.
While Seton Hall and Pittsburgh can’t be compared to Notre Dame and Baylor, the teams UConn must beat to win its eighth national championship, Auriemma is beginning to see signs of a change in his young star.
“I think in the last couple of games she has gotten more involved in more different places at both ends of the floor,” Auriemma said. “I think she feels a lot better about herself now.
“It’s [the slump] something we tried to help her go through. And we hope she does a lot of things this weekend that will help us.”
That may be needed. Tuck played only 10 minutes Tuesday after complaining of more knee soreness. And sophomore Kiah Stokes did not play at all.
“There are only so many minutes in the game and right now I am trying to give them to players who have earned it,” Auriemma said.
Stewart, who scored 2,367 points at Cicero-North Syracuse High (N.Y.) has patiently pushed through her slump.
“I’m doing more and being more active, but I’m not sure if anything triggered [the change],” Stewart said. “I just didn’t want to be playing poorly anymore, so I made the decision to go and change the way I was playing.
“As this year has come along, I have really begun to understand what my role is. I’m just glad to help the team in any way I can. I just really have to focus on going out and being aggressive.
“I think we all know that during the transition from high school to college everything is not going to go the way you wanted it to. If it did, then it would be too easy. I definitely knew about it, but I obviously would have rather it didn’t happen.”