By Carl Adamec
Coach Geno Auriemma likes to talk about the learning experiences his University of Connecticut women’s basketball team have during a season.
Sunday’s nationally televised (ESPN2) game against No. 16 Texas A&M at Reed Arena in College Station will be one of them. It’s the first road game of the year for the second-ranked Huskies (1-0) and the start of a four-game trip that will also take them to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam.
“It’s the same every year,” Auriemma said. “You don’t really know about your team until you’re on the road. You play a quality opponent on their home court and you find out a little more. We play four straight on the road — one on the road and three at a neutral site. But you get a gauge whether or not if they’re mature enough to put the travel and distractions aside and play basketball. I’ll know a lot more a week from today.”
The game is the second of a two-game deal between the schools. The Huskies routed the Aggies 81-51 at the XL Center in Hartford a year ago.
And there could be a bonus if UConn can finish off a sweep of A&M. When No. 4 Stanford ended top-ranked Baylor’s 42-game winning streak Friday night at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Hawaii, it may have opened up the chance for UConn to move into the No. 1 spot in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls with a win. The last time the Huskies topped the polls was at the end of the 2010-11 regular season.
The Aggies (0-2) will have their say, though.
“I’m kind of expecting it to be a crazy atmosphere because it will be a big game,” UConn freshman Breanna Stewart said. “I don’t know if Texas A&M is big, I assume it’s big because it’s Texas. They’re obviously going to want to beat us so we have to be ready.”
UConn hasn’t played since opening the regular season last Sunday with a 103-39 rout of College of Charleston at Gampel Pavilion. Junior All-America guard Bria Hartley will miss her second straight game with a left ankle injury. Auriemma figures to stay with the starting lineup he used against the Cougars.
For freshmen Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson, it will be their first game in a UConn road uniform, though Jefferson — a native of Glenn Heights, Texas — hopes to have between 20 and 40 friends and family members in the crowd.
“It’s not about getting on a bus or getting on a plane or staying in a hotel because these kids have done a lot of that,” Auriemma said of his rookies. “That’s not the hard part. The hard part is when you go into a gym and you don’t have the success that you’re used to having. All of a sudden, how do you react? That’s the hurdle every freshman has to get through. If you fail at home the crowd tries to lift your spirits and there’s a comfort level with the surroundings. But on the road you have to grow up fast.”
So UConn will turn to its veterans like senior Kelly Faris and junior Stefanie Dolson to be steadying influences.
Then again, the Huskies have enjoyed plenty of success on the road. From 2008-12, they lost only four true road games — Rutgers (February 2008), Stanford (December 2010), Baylor (December 2011), and Notre Dame (January 2012).
For UConn, it’s a chance to build momentum off the win over Charleston.
“There was a lot of anticipation for that first game,” Stewart said. “But now that it’s over it’s like, ‘Here we go. Let’s go on a roll into the season and stay strong.’ “
Texas A&M, meanwhile, has struggled with youth and a tough opening schedule. The Aggies have seven freshmen on their roster and have already faced two Top 10 opponents, losing at No. 8 Louisville 47-45 on Nov. 9 and at home to No. 9 Penn State 63-58 Wednesday. Junior center Kelsey Bone is averaging a double-double, but A&M — the 2011 national champion — is shooting just 31 percent from the floor and has almost twice as many turnovers (47) to assists (24) through two games.
“We have to go in focused and have everyone on the same page,” Tuck said. “I think when that happens and everyone is totally in, we can beat anybody.”
After facing Texas A&M Sunday, UConn will stay the night and leave for the Virgin Islands Monday. The Huskies begin Paradise Jam play Thursday against Wake Forest (6 p.m.). They will then take on Marist Friday (8:15 p.m.) and No. 18 Purdue Saturday (8:15 p.m.). All three games from the Paradise Jam will be televised by SNY.
UConn’s next home game isn’t until Nov. 28 when they entertain Colgate at the XL Center.
“Good things come out of these kind of trips,” Auriemma said, “and I expect a lot of good things to come out of this one.”