Season preview: UConn seeks finishing touch

By Carl Adamec

Last year, Baylor used the motto “Unfinished Business” en route to a 40-0 national championship season.
The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team should consider using it now that the Bears got their job done.

The Huskies were 33-5 a year ago. They led in the second half of all five losses, in the final 5:00 of four, and in the final 30 seconds of three, including in the defeat that ended their season at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Natalie Novosel’s game-tying rebound basket with 4.6 seconds left in regulation got Notre Dame to overtime in the Final Four semifinals and the Irish controlled the extra session to send UConn home for the summer for the second straight season.
“I don’t want to discount what the other teams did against us,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “But it says a lot about who we were as a team. We couldn’t finish off big games. And I don’t think it had to do with talent or effort. It was more of a mentality of keeping our heads in the game, stay with the game, and stay smart. We didn’t have that last year and now we have to be more mature about our approach and how we finish.”
The Huskies return four starters and have brought in the nation’s top recruiting class in hopes of contending for the Big East regular season title and a record sixth straight NCAA Final Four berth as they seek to unseat No. 1 Baylor as the national champion. UConn was the coaches’ pick as the favorite in the Big East while settling in at No. 2 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls.
But the big dreams the Huskies have will only come true by taking care of little things.
“We didn’t lose last year because we weren’t talented enough,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who enters his 28th season with 804 wins. “We lost because we were dumb. We made dumb mistakes. We made the wrong play at the wrong time. That goes for me on down. I have to make sure we’re smarter and make good decisions.”
Perhaps being a year older and a year wiser will help. But the
Huskies are still a young team with the majority of the players being freshmen and sophomores. All six of those underclassmen will be counted on to play key roles moving forward.
UConn lost all-Big East guard Tiffany Hayes to graduation and
seldom-used reserves Michala Johnson (Wisconsin) and Lauren Engeln (Boston College) transferred.
“This is a new group and new team,” Faris said. “It’s completely different. The last two years we had good players but too often we had the wrong mindset going about things. This year we start with a clean slate. What happened last year (in Denver), it better have changed our thought process. If that didn’t, I don’t know what will.
“It’s all new. The freshmen are very talented, very smart, and have a good work ethic. At the same time, just because you think we have three great freshmen you can’t throw it all on their shoulders. It doesn’t work that way. They’ll have their moments that they’ll do great things. But they’ll also have their moments that they are freshmen. But it looks good so far.”
The biggest challenge of the preseason has been dealing with injuries.
Fifth-year senior guard Caroline Doty will have issues with her three-time surgically repaired left knee throughout the season. But the Huskies knew that going in.
UConn is hopeful that the ankle injury to junior All-America guard Bria Hartley, suffered in late August, will heal with rest and that she’ll miss only a couple of games.
But unlike the past two years, the Huskies have the depth to overcome injuries.
“With all of the people that we have this year, there’s no drop-off,” UConn sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “Everybody from the first man to the 11th man is someone that can go in there and play 40 minutes for us. Everyone on the team is someone that I think that we can count on.”
Doty, fellow fifth-year senior forward Heather Buck, and Faris are the only players left here with national championship rings.
Hartley is waiting for the opportunity to build on her All-America season while junior center Stefanie Dolson is in the best shape of her life as she tries to bounce back from an up-and-down 2012.
Mosqueda-Lewis was the Big East Sixth Man and Freshman of the Year a season ago so she can be counted on. Fellow sophomore Brianna Banks had an impressive preseason as she and classmate Kiah Stokes look to contribute more than a season ago.
Freshmen Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson make up the nation’s top recruiting class. They’ll be thrown into the fire right from the start.
“It’s going to be a challenge to come up with a rotation that works,” Auriemma said. “They’ll play themselves in and out of it as the season goes on. But I’ll be fine when we get everyone healthy and we’re ready to go.
“We could have one of the best teams we’ve had and come up short. It remains to be seen.”
By the time the postseason comes around, UConn will be battled tested.
The Huskies face seven of the other nine teams in the AP Top 10: No. 1 Baylor, No. 3 Duke, No. 4 Stanford, No. 5 Maryland, No. 7 Notre Dame (twice), No. 8 Penn State, and No. 9 Louisville.
Auriemma believes his team will be up to the challenges.
“If everyone expected us to go to the Final Four last year and
contend for a national championship without Maya Moore, isn’t the expectation level this year to go undefeated and win every game by a hundred?” Auriemma said. “For me to say anything other than we’re going to be really, really good I would be like a lot of other coaches that lie. I like this team. I like the makeup of the team. I like the pieces that we have.”
It all starts Sunday against College of Charleston at Gampel Pavilion.