The daily routines for the UConn women’s basketball team are, first and foremost, about improving in practice or winning a game.
The Huskies have won every American Athletic Conference game they have ever played, and when judged by bottom-line results it’s difficult to say one regular season contest holds more value than the next.
The particularly sweet ones, though, are when coach Geno Auriemma sees big pieces of his team emerge, resurface or advance themselves in ways that bode well for the New Year and stretch run.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gabby Williams was a dominant force for the second game in a row, scoring 16 of her 18 points in the first half of the top-ranked Huskies’ 96-35 victory over East Carolina before an announced crowd of 1,823 at Minges Coliseum.
“Based on what I’ve seen the last week, this is the Gabby that we all saw last year every game,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “We're not the same team without her being like this, for sure.”
Williams made all 10 of her shots and scored a season-high 20 points in the Huskies’ AAC opening victory over Memphis Sunday and picked up where she left off Wednesday at Minges Coliseum, where she drove the lane decisively for the game’s first basket and made her first six.
That pushed her consecutive field goals streak to 16 — she finally missed from about 13 feet just before the first quarter buzzer with UConn leading 27-11 — and she is 18-for-19 from the field over the past two games. In between, Auriemma said, came Williams’ best practice of the season on Tuesday, another sign that she is again becoming a dominant force and escaping the inconsistencies (by her lofty standards, anyway) that showed during the injury-plagued months of November and December.
“It's interesting,” Auriemma said. “I thought [Wednesday] was probably the best she has played all year, and she didn't have a single assist.”
Katie Lou Samuelson took care of the passing with nine assists, matching a career high, to go with 19 points. Azura Stevens had eight points and tied a career high with 16 rebounds. Napheesa Collier added 14 points and six rebounds for UConn (12-0, 2-0 AAC), which plays Saturday at South Florida.
East Carolina, without a player in double-figures, fell to 8-7, 0-2.
“Not a lot of positives to take away,” ECU coach Heather Macy said. “UConn dominated every facet. ... They run the floor so hard. We absolutely got fatigued at certain moments and fouled at inopportune times.”
UConn coaches and players stressed to one another the importance of a relentless, efficient performance, not just relaxing with the knowledge of a wide disparity in talent. Save for a relatively sloppy second quarter, the Huskies were really sharp, opening a 77-29 lead after three quarters by outscoring the Pirates 30-8 (and making 14 of 17 shots) in the third.
The growth of two of the most important players — Williams, long labeled as more an athlete than complete player, and Samuelson, labeled as the scorer — was evident throughout.
“We made a point after the game to talk about how sometimes people assume that if you shot the ball great, you played great, and that’s not the case at all,” Auriemma said. “Lou has worked really, really hard to be more than just a kid who makes shots, and she's become a much, much better basketball player. Gabby, similar scenario, trying to be more than what people think they are. … It's hard for us sometimes to run offense without Lou on the floor, because she makes the most shots and she's our best passer. And it's hard for us to play without Gabby on the floor because how much she creates at both ends.”
Williams had just 28 points over four games before her breakthrough against Memphis.
“I'm glad that instead of being up and down and inconsistent, I can just build on things,” Williams said. “I think that's where we are as a team right now, just looking at building one day at a time. … I was just trying to make those hustle plays. That's the part of my game I take the most pride in, setting the tone with energy and on defense, the intangible things.”
Williams has a team-high 37 turnovers but committed none Wednesday in 23 minutes. (UConn had just seven, overall.)
“When Gabby is at that kind of level, that efficiency and that high energy, it makes our team better,” said guard Kia Nurse, who had nine points and five assists. “She is so skilled in a variety of ways. ... When she's in that zone we've seen the past two games, it continues to make us a more dangerous team.”
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