Question: What differentiates UConn women’s basketball from just about every other program in the nation?
Answer: It would be logical to start on court where the All-Americans have roamed since the start of the 1990s.
But talent takes you only so far. Sometimes the last stop is Dayton, Iowa City or Cincinnati, a few of the places the title train has derailed over the years. Hey, it happens.
It takes sustainability to win eight national championships since 1995, and not just in terms of talent. Truth is, what rests best is between the program’s ears; the confidence it has in itself, its coaches. Its capabilities.
And so when 2013-14 team practiced for the first time last week without junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and sophomore Morgan Tuck, now out indefinitely with injuries, it would have been understandable for it to look at what it had lost.
But that’s just not how UConn rolls.
“Even when we have a little adversity, we have two injured players, we are still coming out and playing Connecticut basketball,” said sophomore Breanna Stewart.
UConn’s performance Friday at No. 8 Maryland was not textbook, however it was ripped straight from some of the chapters written about staying focused when shorthanded and in foul trouble.
“I said this all along: They went from nine All-Americans to seven,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “If they lose a couple more, Geno [Auriemma] might have to coach like the rest of us.”
Oh, he was coaching Friday, Brenda. And his superior seven responded at the Comcast Center during their 72-55 win.
“Everybody just assumes that we are going to win, and win by a lot. It doesn’t matter how many players we have, who is in and who is out,” said Auriemma. “In reality, it is not as easy as you would like to think.”
This is a concept Penn State may have trouble believing Sunday when it takes its shot at Huskies at the Bryce Jordan Center. The game is at noon and will be televised in Connecticut only on the Big Ten Network.
After beating UConn the first three times they met, Penn State has not defeated UConn since 1983; a span of eight losses, all against Auriemma teams. But this will be UConn’s first game ever here.
The Lady Lions have been on the rise over the last decade, especially since Coquese Washington became coach in 2007. They have won two straight Big Ten regular season titles.
And after they defeated Fordham last week, Washington said she felt this team would be up to the task.
“I love the talent that we have,” she said. “I love their attitudes. I love the effort that they play with. It’s going to be a growing process and I’ve got to be patient as we go through it.”
And the forefront of the Penn State (2-0) attack is senior guard Maggie Lucas, averaging 28.0 points. She is one of the nation’s best three-pointer and free throw shooters and a likely first-round WNBA pick come April.
But UConn has always stressed its own performance as being more significant than its opponent. And that’s not going to change, not even with just a handful of options.
“If I had my druthers, I’d rather have 10 healthy players than seven,” said Auriemma said. “But [at Maryland], the seven that we had, for the most part, played great.”
Auriemma filled Mosqueda-Lewis’ starting slot with junior Kiah Stokes, who played so well against Stanford five days earlier. After an admitted slow start, Stokes fought off a third foul early in the second half and contributed mightily off the boards (eight) and by blocking two shots.
Brianna Banks came back from being slightly hobbled at the end of the first half to score night points in 25 minutes.
“We are going to come out and get a win even if it is a sloppy win. We came out and got it done,” said Stewart, who scored 19 of her 26 points in an electrifying first half shooting performance. But even despite that, Auriemma was not happy with her. She had not rebounds. He told her this at halftime. She finished with seven, six offensive.
“They [UConn} will look to their superstar and that is what Breanna Stewart was from the get-go [Friday], “ said Rebecca Lobo on ESPNW.com after the game. “She was focused from the start to get out in transition and attack the basket. She hit threes. She played stellar defense. She came to play
UConn also turned over the ball just six times. And in the second half, even after senior center Stefanie Dolson picked up her fourth foul, they stiffened defensively, limiting the Terrapins to 31 percent shooting and grabbing 13 of their 15 offensive rebounds.
“The culture of our program allows us to do some of the things that we do,” said Auriemma.