By Carl Adamec
DALLAS — Selection Monday is three weeks away.
Coach Geno Auriemma is glad to have the time as his unbeaten and top-ranked University of Connecticut women’s basketball team gets ready to face Southern Methodist in an American Athletic Conference game at Moody Coliseum Tuesday night (8 p.m., SNY).
“If you’re telling me right now that we’re a way better team than the one that won the national championship last year I would tell you we’re not,” Auriemma said. “You can’t take Kelly Faris, Kaleena Lewis, and Morgan Tuck out of our lineup and replace them with Saniya Chong and say, ‘You guys are way better than what you were last year.’ That’s not the case. We’re not. That doesn’t mean we can’t win it. That doesn’t mean when Kaleena comes back that we’re going to be lucky to win it. I don’t mean that. Given the two people that aren’t playing, we’re not as good of a team as we were last year in March.
“So we have to do some things between now and then. Our margin of error is way smaller than it was last year. Do we have the players and makeup to win a national championship? Yeah, but so do three or four other teams in the country. But if Kaleena was not to come back and we have exactly who we have today, I would tell you our chances would not be as great as when we started the Stanford game (Nov. 11). That’s for sure.”
The Huskies (28-0 overall, 15-0 AAC) took the first game of this Texas two-step by routing Houston 92-41 at Hofheinz Pavilion Saturday, but it was a tale of two halves.
UConn didn’t have the energy or intensity usually associated with it for the first 20 minutes. Its 40-16 lead was built mainly on the fact that it has much more talent the last-place Cougars.
“When that stuff starts happening on the court, you already know going to the locker room that Coach is going to be upset that we didn’t play well,” UConn All-American Bria Hartley said. “But all you can do is respond to what Coach says when he challenges us. I thought when we went out there when he challenged us and responded well.”
The Huskies set the tone early in the second half with their defense and caught fire offensively, shooting 80 percent from the floor in the period to wrap up their 34th consecutive win.
Auriemma’s days of ranting and raving in the halftime locker room are few and far between now, he said, but his words got through.
“You have to play regardless of who you’re playing against, regardless of where you’re playing, regardless of what time of day,” Auriemma said of his halftime message. “If you’re going to put your sneakers on and go out on the court, you’ve got to play. Sometimes kids, it’s human nature. Kids go, ‘We’re going to win. What’s the point?’ Well there is a lot of point to it. If there wasn’t a point we should have just called them up and said, ‘Look, last time we beat you by this much. Why don’t we make the score the same thing and call it a day?’ If you’re going to come down here you’ve got to play, so you play. I don’t think, other than the two seniors, we did any of that.
“But that’s when you need your bench. People talk about, ‘You’ve got the best starting five in America.’ We don’t have the best starting five in America right now. We have the best starting four. We don’t have the best bench in America. So we need to play. It doesn’t mean we have to play great every night but we need to play and play with a lot of energy and a sense of …
“We’re not playing against Houston, no disrespect towards them. We’re not playing against SMU on Tuesday. This isn’t what we’re all about at Connecticut. We’re not down here … You want to win, but that’s not the point. The point isn’t seeing how much do you win by. The final score isn’t going to help you win in the NCAA tournament. We’re trying to prepare for the NCAA tournament.”
Hartley and Stefanie Dolson finished with 24 points each to lead the Huskies in Houston while Breanna Stewart added 16. Freshman Chong made her third straight start in place of Mosqueda-Lewis, though Auriemma reported positive news Saturday about the junior All-American’s battle with mononucleosis. She will be evaluated again this week.
UConn will try to avoid some of the same traps against SMU (16-10, 7-8) Tuesday. The Huskies walloped the Mustangs 102-41 on Feb. 4 at Gampel Pavilion as Hartley led five players in double figures with 21 points.
Auriemma has many concerns. His senior class — Hartley and Dolson — isn’t one of them. He knows what he’s going to get from them.
“That’s the comforting part you have with those two, especially,” Auriemma said. “They’re consistent and that’s the best thing that you can say about anyone. They’re the same. You don’t get the tremendous highs or tremendous lows. You get pretty consistent play.
“Bria Hartley is a very, very competitive individual. That doesn’t mean everything goes right for her every single night or that she has a great game every night. But she’s a very competitive person. Every time you challenge her to do something she tries really, really hard to do it. Stefanie, what can you say about how hard she’s worked the last three and three-quarters seasons? When you have two seniors like we do you can win a lot of games. You can be very successful. All you have to do is surround them with the right people and they certainly are. So on those nights when it’s a bit of a struggle, those two make sure it works out.”
The Huskies will take a one-half game lead in the AAC race to its first contest at Moody Coliseum. Second-place Louisville is off until it visits Cincinnati Saturday, the same day UConn entertains Rutgers for its Senior Day. The Huskies face the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center next Monday in the regular season finale. Their first game in the AAC tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena is March 8.
Selection Monday is three weeks away.