Women's basketball: UConn braces for a fast February
Come Saturday, when the UConn women's basketball team pays its yearly visit to Cincinnati (9-11, 2-7 American Athletic Conference), the calendar flips to February.
"Once February comes, it's like a ski jump," UConn coach Auriemma said. "You look up and it's March 1."
The next four weeks then are the final fleeting moments Auriemma has to prepare his team for the postseason. In his assessment, the Huskies (22-0, 9-0 American Athletic Conference) improved some during the course of January, but still have areas of weakness in need of tweaking and upgrading.
The biggest area of concern? Rebounding.
"I think rebounding is always a huge key," Auriemma said. "I don't think there's anything more important defensively than rebounding the ball. And when you think about it, Kiah [Stokes] is the one player on our team built for rebounding. She's built like a rebounder.
"Stefanie [Dolson] has to work hard at it, [Breanna Stewart] has to work hard at it. It's not something that just comes naturally to anybody other than Kiah, so we're constantly trying to make that better."
Of course, even with that weakness, UConn has out-rebounded its opponent in 20 of 22 games this season.
The other big standout for Auriemma has been the production of his bench players. Depth has never been a strength of this squad - with Morgan Tuck out for the remainder of the season after knee surgery, the Huskies are down to just eight scholarship players on the roster.
"I don't think Saniya [Chong] has gotten a lot better, which I'd hoped that she would," Auriemma said. "She's kind of plateaued a little bit. And that's kind of natural, that happens. I don't think Brianna Banks has gotten better; I think she's going to have to take a major step forward. Her and Saniya - we need both of them to get good and to get good fast."
While those things may be problem areas for UConn, they've had more than enough production from the remainder of the team to cover up any deficiencies to this point.
Breanna Stewart, who finished Tuesday's game against Temple with a career-high 37 points, has averaged 19.5 so far this season.
Combined with the production from the Huskies two main guards, Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson, they've managed to avoid any pitfalls of being short-handed and playing with quick turnarounds over the season's first three months.
The trip to Cincinnati marks UConn's fourth game in 11 days. Over the first three games of that span, Jefferson - who has registered a historically impressive 3.25 assist/turnover ratio - has racked up 25 assists, but turned it over just five times.
In addition to posting 11 assists against the Owls, Hartley has now scored in double figures in each of the last six games.
"When we were down those few guys in the beginning of the season and we had those quick games," Stefanie Dolson said, "it kind of taught us to push through being tired, making sure we made smart decisions on the floor. It really came in handy for times like now when we're down a guy or someone gets hurt here and there."
On Dec. 29, the teams' first meeting and their first conference game, UConn prevailed 67-34 in a sloppy game at Gampel Pavilion.
Tip-off between the Huskies and Bearcats is set for 2 p.m. at Fifth Third Arena and the game can be seen on SNY.
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