By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ sophomore jinx has come through the injury front.
The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s forward missed the first game of her career a week ago with a concussion and then was a question mark until just before game time Thursday night after suffering a left quad contusion against Maryland Monday.
But in a sign of her growing maturity and status amongst her coaches and teammates, not only did Mosqueda-Lewis play against Penn State Thursday night, she was the Huskies’ best player.
Mosqueda-Lewis scored 25 points as No. 2 UConn defeated 10th-ranked Penn State 67-52 before an announced crowd of 8,072 at Gampel Pavilion.
“Coach (Geno Auriemma) is telling me all the time that I have to be someone that the team can depend on,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “I have to come in and be consistent and I’ve been trying to do that since the season started.”
Mosqueda-Lewis was 8-for-13 shooting and added five rebounds and four steals in her 35 minutes on the floor. She left to a standing ovation when she fouled out with 56.2 seconds left.
She may be still only be 19 and a sophomore, but she handled herself like a true veteran. She admitted she wouldn’t have been able to do what she did a year ago.
“In all honesty, it probably would not have gone my way,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “It probably would have been Bria Hartley or Stef Dolson to bring us back or someone like that. Last year I don’t know if my state of mind was in a place to be the one to be depended on by the team.
“If you go out on the court you better be ready to give 100 percent and if you’re not ready you shouldn’t be out there.”
But she showed she was dependable, and more.
“She showed us how tough of a player she is,” UConn freshman Moriah Jefferson said. “She’s one of the toughest people I know. No matter what you’re going through or what injury you have you can push yourself through it. I’m inspired by her.”
To Auriemma, it was the kind of effort he’s been wanting from her.
“The one thing that you knew about Kaleena is that she has the drive to be really, really good,” Auriemma said. “I think last year’s success, and some failures, motivated her to come out and be different. Now she’s different and she’s better and we wouldn’t have won the game without her tonight.”
The game was closer than the final score indicates. In fact, the Huskies (8-0) found themselves in an unfamiliar spot midway through the first half.
UConn led by seven early but a 13-4 run put Penn State in front. When Maggie Lucas scored on a breakaway with 10:45 left in the half, it marked the first time the Huskies have trailed since giving up the season’s first basket against College of Charleston on Nov. 11.
Down 18-16, UConn regained the lead on consecutive baskets by Brianna Banks, Hartley and Dolson. Kelly Faris’ free throw accounted for a 28-22 halftime lead.
It was 42-36 when Mosqueda-Lewis and the Huskies’ full-court pressure broke it open. Five points by Mosqueda-Lewis and back-to-back hoops by Jefferson pushed the lead to 15. After an Ariel Edwards hoop and a Lucas trey for Penn State (6-2), UConn iced it with six straight points on a basket by Mosqueda-Lewis, two Banks free throws, and Breanna Stewart’s only field goal of the night for its biggest lead at 62-41.
“We changed defenses up to get more traps and more pressure on the ball,” Jefferson said. “We sped them up and got them out of their comfort zone.”
Banks finished with 10 points and was the only other UConn player in double figures.
Lucas had 15 points for Penn State. Like Maryland, the Lady Lions were physical with the Huskies and it paid dividends. They won the rebounding battle 38-37 and even outscored UConn in the paint 28-26 while taking Stewart out of the game with their defense. But 26 turnovers were costly.
“I don’t think there’s one blueprint way to beat UConn,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “You have to play your game whatever it is and execute your game plan. We didn’t make enough shots.”
Neither coach was happy with officials Barbara Jo Smith, Bryan Enterline, and Jesse Dickerson. Thirty-eight fouls were called, 22 on Penn State, with Auriemma picking up his first technical of the season with 19:27 left.
UConn is off for fall semester final exams until Dec. 19 when it plays host to Oakland, Mich. (7 p.m., SNY) at the XL Center in Hartford.
When asked if she felt jinxed, Mosqueda-Lewis was able to smile.
“A little bit,” she said. “But bad things come in threes so I think that I’m done.”