By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma didn’t look like a 58-year-old veteran coach on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s bench Monday night.
Maybe it was the sight of Duke. Maybe it was an enthusiastic crowd of 9,671 that was into it from the start. But Kelly Faris and his players weren’t the only ones with plenty of energy. And it came through in the halftime locker room with the third-ranked Huskies leading No. 4 and unbeaten Duke by two at Gampel Pavilion.
“Coach was pretty mad,” Faris said.
But after UConn’s best 20 minutes of the season led to a 79-49 rout of the Blue Devils, the Hall of Fame coach was all smiles.
“There’s a lot of factors at play here,” Auriemma said. “We’ve been just missing on a lot of things, you know? You can’t put your finger on why we’re just missing. We just miss this pass or this cut or that defensive stop or that defensive rotation. We’re winning by a lot, we’re doing some great things, and we have a great record. But you can just tell it’s not quite there and you can’t put your finger on it. After awhile because you can’t put your finger on it you get unbelievably frustrated because you go and you think you have an answer and you don’t. Then you try another answer and you don’t. You keep coming up empty. Tonight the frustration just came out of me in the locker room.
“We turned all that frustration into concentration and aggressiveness that helped us find a little bit of what was missing. I don’t know if it’s going to be there for the rest of the season. That halftime wasn’t very technical. It wasn’t a whole lot of, ‘We need to attack it this way. We need to attack it that way. We need to play defense this way.’ There wasn’t a lot of that. The rest was much more about, ‘We’ve got to find that missing piece.’ We found it. And now the key is holding on to it. The key is holding on to it and adding to it.”
UConn (17-1) shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half as it did in the first, but cut its turnovers from 12 to three. The Huskies forced nine second-half turnovers after causing only three in the first. Faris had 11 points, eight rebounds, and five assists in the period before leaving to a standing ovation with 1:36 left to finish with her third career double-double (18 points, 12 rebounds). Breanna Stewart had all 13 of her points in the second half. Bria Hartley had five of her career high nine assists. UConn won the battle of the boards 24-12 to finish the game with a 44-25 advantage. This was the team effort Auriemma has been waiting for.
“Coaching is no fun when you can’t find the answers,” Auriemma said. “You think when you’re a kid and you’re in a slump it’s no fun? When you’re a coach and you’re trying to get 12, 11, 10 players on the same page and you can’t … That’s what you get paid to do. That’s your job. That’s your profession. My job is to get these 10, 11 guys to play like (snapping his fingers), and I can’t do it, can’t do it, can’t do it and it eats away at you. Coaching is no fun when it’s like that. But the last 20 minutes of today’s game was as much fun as I’ve had in a long, long time.”
Faris, junior center Stefanie Dolson, and sophomore guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis have been named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 20 list announced Tuesday. The Huskies were the lone team with three representatives.
Baylor’s Brittney Griner was the 2012 Wooden Award winner.
The five-player Wooden Award All-America team will be announced the week of the NCAA regional finals in March. The Player of the Year will be announced April 12.
For the first time since Dec. 6 against Penn State, Auriemma had all 11 of his players healthy and available. All but Heather Buck got in during the first half Monday night. But using 10 players was not proving to be a winning edge.
“As coaches we are trying to accomplish a lot of things and sometimes it doesn’t always go that way,” Auriemma said. “My idea was that we are going to give a lot of guys a lot of minutes and it’s a great opportunity for them to play in a big game like this at home against Duke. Then they are out there and you look at the way they are playing and you say, ‘Why?’ “
Assistant coach Shea Ralph had a question for Auriemma at the break.
“Shea goes, ‘We aren’t going to do that in the second half are we?’ and I said no,” Auriemma said.
The Huskies used only seven players in the opening 13 minutes of the period as they built their lead from two to 27.
“We were able to keep our core on the floor for a long, long, long time,” Auriemma said, “and that made all the difference.”
Dolson, who scored the 1,000th point of her career in Saturday’s win over Syracuse, received a commemorative basketball from Auriemma prior to Monday night’s tip.
The newly-minted Big East Player of the Week then went out against Duke and did something she’s avoided for much of this breakout season of hers — she got into foul trouble. Dolson sat out all but 12 seconds of the final 4:30 of the first half with two fouls and then went to the bench with 16:15 left with four fouls.
Ironically, UConn broke the game open in the second half without Dolson. Stewart came on and after not attempting a shot in the first half had 13 points over the final 13:52.
“Stewie finally started making a couple of plays,” Auriemma said. “We didn’t miss Stefanie that much. That’s what we’re going to need. We can’t rely on Stefanie every single night. There are nights like this when we need different people to step up.”
Dolson picked up her fourth foul trying to deny Duke center Elizabeth Williams on a drive to the basket. Auriemma was furious with referee Bonita Spence on the call and let her know about it, but had a change of heart by the postgame press conference.
“Stefanie is such a huge key to our offense,” Auriemma said. “When she got that fourth foul … And I owe a public apology to Bonita I admit when I’m wrong. I don’t have to do it very often.”
Laughter filled the room.
“I’m dead serious,” he said. “I owe her an apology. There are fouls called on Stefanie that aren’t necessarily called on other post players. I don’t know why. But if I would have taken the time to really, really study that play, Stefanie fouled her. A dumb foul. When she came out, I think had the game been played the way it was played in the first half, it would have been a problem. Because of the way the game was flowing, it didn’t have the effect that it would have had.”
Dolson played 23 minutes and had six points and six rebounds, ending her career best streak of eight straight games in double figures.
UConn is 13-0 in non-league play with defending national champ and No. 1 Baylor remaining Feb. 18 … The Huskies are 15-4 when playing an ESPN-televised game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day since the tradition started in 1995 against Tennessee … UConn returns to Big East play Saturday when it visits former player/assistant coach Jamelle Elliott and Cincinnati (8 p.m., SNY).