On the night of another presidential inauguration, Geno Auriemma stood before his media contingent and evoked the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, a guy history reminds us knew how to run a team.
Auriemma’s inspiration came from an epiphany he’d had at halftime of Monday’s 79-49 win over No. 4 Duke when his Huskies (17-1) clung to a 32-30 lead.
The UConn coach called an impromptu cabinet meeting to discuss the situation.
“There is a great line in the book about Thomas Jefferson I am reading right now that says something like, “There are times when you are philosophical, but those ideas have to give way to practical ideas,” Auriemma said.
Auriemma’s ideas were democratic in content. He wanted to offer as many of his players as possible quality time in the first half. But the results weren’t what he’d hope for; UConn had just 24 shots, 12 field goals and 12 turnovers.
“It was going to be a big opportunity for them to play in a big game at home,” Auriemma said. “Then when you saw what was happening, you thought ‘Why?’ Why do I feel this urge?
“So when we came out for the second half, Shea Ralph [the UConn assistant] asked me, ‘We’re not going to do that again?’ And I said no. She said ‘put them [the reserves] in one at a time and don’t you dare put them all out there at the same time.’”
So that’s what Auriemma did. He tightened his rotation, basically opting only for freshman Breanna Stewart [13 minutes] once Stefanie Dolson picked up her fourth foul with 16:15 to play.
And Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Caroline Doty, Bria Hartley and the unsinkable Kelly Faris led UConn to one of the most remarkable second halves it has ever played.
“Coach told us the locker room that our mentality, our aggression needed to change,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “He reminded us that whenever we would say something [critical] to his players [in the past] they would retaliate and rally to prove him wrong. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to show him we were strong.”
During the second half, UConn outscored Duke, 47-19. It cut its turnovers from 12 to three. And it rode adrenaline like an electric track to another rout of the Blue Devils, who’ve the Huskies have defeated by an average of 29.6 points in their last six victories.
“It was just about the frustration over how we’ve been playing in the last few games,” said Faris, who led the way with 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two steals in 31 minutes. “All the turnovers; after the first half we had 12, Duke had 3. We know what we can do as a team. We’ve done it before. It was just a matter of buckling down and bringing the energy and the hustle.”
Perhaps the biggest change UConn made in the second half was incorporating Stewart, who did not take a shot in nine first-half minutes.
“Stewie finally started making a couple of plays, so we didn’t miss Stefanie that much,” Auriemma said. “And that is what we are going to need. We can’t rely on Stefanie every night. There will be nights [like Monday] when we need people to step up.
“There are a lot of things that Stewie is going to have to get better at and she knows that. She’s actually pretty good at following directions. But if you leave things up to her …
“If you tell her you want her to score every time she touches the ball or try to block a shot every time she’s down the floor, well, that is all you need to tell her. But if you just ask her to be more aggressive it sometimes doesn’t register. You need to be very specific about her and in the second half she did a great job.”
And so Duke (16-1) became the last team in Division I to lose a game.
“What happened last night was amazing on many fronts,” Auriemma said.
But likely nothing was more amazing how a little second-guessing from Auriemma, perfectly translated to his team, expertly executed onto the floor, made the night come alive.
“There’s a bunch of adrenaline flowing, you are feeling good,” said Mosqueda-Lewis, who led the Huskies with 21 points. “There’s just vibe about the team. You can see everyone is clicking, everyone is getting it.
“We didn’t want someone to come to Gampel and make it their territory.”