Thursday, February 06, 2014
STORRS, Conn. — The biggest threat to Connecticut’s drive for its ninth national championship and second in a row may be a short bench.
UConn didn’t have a huge team to start the season with just 11 players on the roster, and injuries and illnesses have left the Huskies with as few as six scholarship athletes available to play.
“I think fatigue is a big concern and obviously foul trouble,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “You can never predict people getting hurt or getting sick. So, going forward you try to manage it. There is not much you can do about it.”
But opponents are not sympathetic. They point out No. 1 UConn is 22-0 going into Saturday’s game at Cincinnati, and the Huskies are winning by an average of 36 points.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz said Auriemma may not be sleeping easy, but he’s still getting a good night’s rest.
The Huskies entered the season with just nine scholarship players after enrolling a recruiting class of one — guard Saniya Chong. Auriemma doesn’t always field a full roster of 15 players, recruiting only those he feels fit the program.
The number dropped to seven for a stretch of eight games when All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis landed hard on her elbow after getting tangled up with Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike on Nov. 11.
Forward Morgan Tuck, who likely would have replaced Mosqueda-Lewis in the starting lineup, was sidelined after that same game to have surgery on her right knee.
Both players returned to the court in December. But Tuck missed more games with a bone bruise in that troublesome knee, and underwent season-ending microfracture surgery Thursday to transplant cartilage into the spot where it was missing. Her recovery is expected to take up to nine months, and the school plans to ask for a medical redshirt.
With Tuck out, minor injuries and illnesses are suddenly a major concern.
Last Sunday, guard Brianna Banks was nursing a sprained ankle and Chong was sick with flu-like symptoms. That left the Huskies with just six scholarship players for their game against South Florida.
On Tuesday, center Stefanie Dolson limped off the court with 8 minutes left in the Huskies game against Temple. She had her right foot taped and did not return. She is expected to be available vs. Cincinnati.
“There is really no room for error,” said guard Bria Hartley. If you are out there and you’re making mistakes, there is no one that can really come in and relive you or help you out, so you really have to be really focused and go out there and play confident.”
Auriemma said it’s harder to practice with fewer players — although he uses male practice players — and a short bench requires playing more zone defense to protect players from foul trouble.
“The coaches know what they are doing,” said sophomore star Breanna Stewart, who is averaging 19 points and 29 minutes, despite the large number of blowouts. “They are setting us up in practice to play 40 minutes a game if we have to. No matter how many subs we have, we need to really keep pushing ourselves so that for the next game, we’ll be able to go even longer.”
But Auriemma said he needs more production from the reserves, specifically Chong and Banks. Both players are averaging about 5.0 points.
“We need both of them to get good and to get good fast,” he said.
Walz’s Louisville team, ranked No. 5, is expected to pose the biggest threat to an undefeated regular season for UConn. He doesn’t see anything to exploit in the Huskies’ short bench.
“When Stewart, (Bria) Hartley and Dolson all go out and then they are down to five, then we’ll see,” he said. “But right now I think he’s OK.
“No one is going to roll over and not give them an effort. If you’re going to bed and you know you have Bria Hartley, Stewart and Dolson and Mosqueda-Lewis, you’ll rest easy.”