Huskies learn they must get physical

By Carl Adamec

HARTFORD, Conn. — Breanna Stewart will have a memory of her first game against a Top 10 opponent, at least for a couple of days. The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s freshman forward was sporting a small cut near her left eye.

Welcome to the bigs.

Stewart finished with 13 points and six rebounds in the second-ranked Huskies’ 63-48 win over No. 9 Maryland in the Jimmy V Classic at the XL Center Monday night. While those numbers were respectable, the 4-for-12 shooting from the floor and five turnovers were unacceptable to her.

“I learned that I have to embrace the physical play,” Stewart said. “We’re going to see that a lot. I have to get more used to it and that starts at practice with the practice players.”

Down to eight players due to three season ending knee injuries, the Terrapins’ plan for the Huskies was if they weren’t going to beat them, beat them up. The style proved effective as Maryland (4-2) seldom allowed UConn to get comfortable at the offensive end.

The Huskies (7-0) shot just 38 percent from the floor and committed 17 turnovers as they scored a season low point total. But their defense, led by senior Kelly Faris, held Maryland to 35 percent shooting and forced 26 turnovers, including eight by All-American Alyssa Thomas.

“Defensively we responded pretty well but offensively they sped us up a little bit and that’s something that we need to continue to work on,” Faris said.

Center Stefanie Dolson led UConn with 14 points and eight rebounds, but even she had four turnovers and only one assist. Her assist-to-turnover ratio coming was almost 2-to-1.

The battle within the game between Dolson and Stewart and Maryland post players Tianna Hawkins and Alicia DeVaughn had its moments.

With 1:59 left in the first half, Dolson volleyball spiked a Hawkins shot into the seats under the basket. On Maryland’s next possession, Hawkins nailed an 18-foot jumper and gave the extended follow through to make sure Dolson knew about it. With 8:05 to go in the game, Dolson and DeVaughn were called for a double foul as Dolson worked for position down low.

Stewart had the game’s first basket but soon found herself on the bench. She returned and seven straight points in a 10-0 run that gave UConn its first double-digit lead in the first half was her highlight.

“I knew they were going to be physical just from the scouting report,” Stewart said. “I was just a little slow getting into the groove of things which is obviously something that I can’t do.”

“We had a couple of spurts that we didn’t score but we still played great defense so we can learn from that,” Dolson added. “It was a good game to learn for us.”

Which is what UConn’s Geno Auriemma is counting on.

The Hall of Fame coach knows the tape from Monday night’s game is sitting on desks at Penn State, Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke, and Baylor, among other places.

“From a coach’s standpoint, you kind of know who your tough guys are and you know the guys who are going to be affected by it,” Auriemma said. “It was good for them to see it. The coaching staff, we know who’s going to do what when the punches start flying and we want the other guys to step up and be like that. We have it on film now so they can see it for themselves. It came at a great time for us.”

The Huskies, who have not trailed since giving up the first basket of the season against College of Charleston on Nov. 11, scored the first six points en route to a 13-4 lead. Maryland pulled back within two but the Stewart-led 10-0 made it 27-15 and two baskets by Faris pushed the lead to 33-20 at halftime. Maryland closed within 40-33, but a 3-point basket by Brianna Banks (11 points) and a conventional three-point play by All-American Bria Hartley put the lead in double figures the rest of the way.

Faris stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and a career high eight steals in 34 minutes while locking down Thomas. She was sore as well afterwards, but after 122 games at UConn (115-7) she is used to it.

“I need to keep everyone calm and set the tone,” Faris said. “We have to keep it even keeled. The second my teammates see me flustered, or any other upperclassmen for that matter, it’s not a good sign. They feed off of us and we feed off of them but we have to set the tone and play our game. We can’t let the other team make us play their game.”

With 10th-ranked Penn State on deck at Gampel Pavilion (Thursday, 7 p.m., SNY), consider it a lesson learned.