Huskies handle Rutgers, prepare for Baylor
Despite a matchup against top-ranked Baylor, no one within the UConn women's basketball team is willing to call Monday night's game the biggest of the season.
No game in mid-February can carry such a title in Storrs.
"The interesting thing about some of the games we play all year long are if you get that far in the NCAA Tournament," Coach Geno Auriemma said after practice Sunday, "there's a pretty good chance you'll have to play them all again.
"Regardless of what we did against Duke or Stanford or Notre Dame or Penn State or Maryland or what we do [against Baylor], hopefully we'll be in a position to play them again and at that point it'll really matter who wins and who loses."
But even under the somewhat minimalized expectations leading in, Auriemma's Huskies know that Monday night at the XL Center is an important measuring stick.
"We know the tournament is coming up and everyone's going to play their best game," UConn center Stefanie Dolson said, "so we've got to go into it with the right mentality and kind of go in to work on things - work on our game, our defense, executing on offense and just playing good basketball."
Dolson has been at the center of media attention in the days leading up to the game, mostly because of her role as the main defender on the Lady Bears' leading scorer Brittney Griner.
She has struggled mightily to match up the past two seasons; Griner has scored 44 total points in the two games to Dolson's eight.
But after a first fourth months of the season in which she has been dominant, and an offseason conditioning program got her into better shape, Dolson feels she is better prepared for the challenge this time around.
"I think just my overall game this year is completely different - my confidence level is different than the last two years," Dolson said. "I can consistently make my outside shots more often and spread the floor out more because I can make threes, and I'm just quicker. I don't know, I think I'm a smarter player, I'll make better decisions."
Despite the fact that Dolson may be better equipped to deal with Griner, she's well aware that guarding the reigning Naismith College Player of the Year is more than a one-person effort.
"It's not just going to be me," Dolson said, "it's going to be other girls on the team going to be there in help defense and I think everyone is definitely more prepared and ready to play [against Baylor this season]."
In addition to neutralizing Griner, the Huskies face the task of trying to guard junior Odyssey Sims on the perimeter. That, Auriemma says, could be an x-factor in the game.
"She makes their offense a lot better because you can't just concentrate all your attention on Brittney Griner because Odyssey will make a play and will make all that strategy worthless," Auriemma said.
"And as much defensively as offensively - she's a really, really tough on-the-ball defender. And I guess you can be when you've got that shot blocker behind you [in Brittney Griner]. You can take all the chances you want."
A squad like Baylor, Auriemma knows, is capable of putting a tremendous amount of pressure on anyone, even a talented group like his own. A string of bad possessions and empty offensive trips could mean the difference, as the Lady Bears are capable of quickly putting the game out of reach.
These are the hard-fought, challenging games he looks forward to coaching.
"The kind of games that coaches like, I think - the kind of games I like is a game where if you play your A-game you could still lose," Auriemma said. "Those are great games to coach in because now your goal is to play your A-game. And then if you win you win and if you lose you lose, but it's not that exciting to go into a game knowing that if three of our starters foul out we're still going to win by a bunch."
Ironically, the Huskies are coming off of a game in which it took far less than their A-effort to leave with a victory.
On Saturday, UConn entered the Rutgers Athletic Center and looked extremely lethargic throughout the opening 10 minutes, and even after turning it around, never looked particularly sharp, yet still walked out with a 20-point victory.
"It's in the back of our minds but we're trying to move forward from it," UConn redshirt senior Caroline Doty said of the 65-45 win against Rutgers. "It's a learning experience now, we can't really do anything to change it, but we just know that whatever our mentality was, the way we approached it that game is not acceptable. So we know what not to do."
Viewers everywhere will be hoping that the Huskies indeed learned what not to do and manage to bring their best effort against the Lady Bears, as the ESPN-televised game is, in the eyes of most fans, the marquee event of the women's college basketball regular season.
Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. and the game can also be heard on WTIC 1080 AM.
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