Carl Adamec: Auriemma hopes better days ahead for Huskies
Feb. 2—PROVIDENCE — It's almost been as sure as death and taxes for more than three decades. Under coach Geno Auriemma, the UConn women's basketball team gets better as the season goes on.
The February stretch drive is on and with March around the corner it's time for the Huskies to be at their best. Their history shows it's what they do. From 1994 through last year, the Huskies were 225-16 (.934) in February games.
No. 5 UConn got the new month started Wednesday with a win, holding off Big East rival Providence 64-54 at Alumni Hall's Mullaney Gymnasium. For the Huskies (21-2 overall, 13-0 Big East), it was their 14th win in a row as they completed a sweep of their stretch of five games in 12 days.
But they are tired, mentally and physically. Dorka Juhász (19 points, 17 rebounds) was outstanding Wednesday as was Nika Mühl (14 points, 9 assists). Aubrey Griffin (13 points) came up with the biggest shot of the game late in the third quarter. But Lou Lopez Sénéchal, though she had 13 points, didn't look right and Aaliyah Edwards (four points) got into foul trouble and was never in the flow. The reserves did not produce.
So unless the cavalry arrives in Caroline Ducharme (concussion protocol) and/or Azzi Fudd (right knee), it's hard to see how the Huskies can get to the level they need to be come mid-to-late March.
"You can always improve and get better at certain things," Auriemma said. "I don't know that we can get significantly better. Maybe we get better at making better decisions which will give us an opportunity to get more shots. I think scoring points is going to be more difficult as we move along unless we get a couple shooters back into the lineup, because we don't' bring anybody off the bench that is a scorer.
"So you have to have big games from people like Lou did at Tennessee and Dorka did tonight. You hope there are one or two players that have it that night and kind of ride that wave they have. Other than that, we can't practice enough to get better. We can't spend enough time at practice to get better."
The Huskies have had 10 players available for one game — Texas on Nov. 14. The last time they had nine players available was against Seton Hall on Dec. 21.
In the last five games, Mühl, Juhász, and Griffin have played at least 30 minutes in each. Lopez Sénéchal has played at least 30 minutes in the last four. Edwards played only 26 minutes Wednesday because of foul trouble after going all 40 in Sunday's win over Villanova.
"Physically we're in pretty good shape, said Mühl, who got a 38-second break Wednesday coming off back-to-back 40-minute efforts. "It would be crazy not to say that this whole stretch with injured players isn't going to take a toll on us. But that's normal. Coach is being super-patient with us yet still holding us accountable."
Mühl has already played more minutes than she did all of last year and Griffin has played more minutes as a redshirt junior than she played either her freshman or sophomore years. Juhász will likely beat her minutes from last year against Georgetown on Feb. 11 and Edwards will do the same the following week. Lopez Sénéchal is used to the minutes she gets but is playing against a whole different level of opponent than she saw most of the time at Fairfield.
Against the Friars, who not only haven't beaten UConn in 30 years but haven't come close, the Huskies did enough to continue their winning ways.
"You just have to play the games and see what comes of it," Auriemma said. "With the schedule being what it is, the travel being what it is, if you said you're going to win all five games I'd say, 'Yeah, I'm not surprised we won all five games.' That's kind of what we're set up to do.
"I'm not surprised that as the games have gone on it has gotten increasingly more difficult to stay up and to be mentally sharp offensively, to be in a good rhythm because everyone is on the same page. Right now mentally we're not all on the same page. People are in different places mentally depending upon how they feel. That affects you mostly on the offensive end. There is nothing you can do about. There is nothing you can do to change it. It is what it is."
Auriemma tried to give his bench minutes Wednesday. Reserves Ayanna Patterson, Amari DeBerry, and Inês Bettencourt gave back one point, no rebounds, and one assist in a combined 26:11.
With UConn leading by 13 and 5:02 to go, Auriemma put in Bettencourt for Lopez Sénéchal. The lead was down to eight with 3:23 remaining when Auriemma called time out and kept Lopez Sénéchal on the bench.
"Lou looks like she's lost about 15 pounds in the last 10 days," Auriemma said. "She's getting the Diana Taurasi treatment out there. She gets fouled on every possession, and the officials today were just content to let it go the way it goes."
Things aren't going to get any easier, not with No. 1 South Carolina coming to the XL Center Sunday.
Auriemma, though, will take his chances with what he's got.
"I asked the players, 'How many times this year have I been really angry?' " Auriemma said. "Hardly at all, almost never. You watch them play over the course of the year, what's there to be angry about? They play their butts off. They listen and try to do everything you say. They mess it up as much as any team I've had and then they get it right. But we're facing an uphill battle almost every day and they haven't complained. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt."
Maybe the Huskies will be better for that.
Carl Adamec is a Journal Inquirer staff writer. He has covered the UConn women's basketball team for 34 years.
For coverage of all sports in the JI's 18-town coverage area, plus updates on the UConn women's basketball team and head coach Geno Auriemma, follow Carl Adamec on Twitter: @CarlAdamec, Facebook: Carl Adamec, and Instagram: @CarlAdamec.