By JOHN ALTAVILLA, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
8:23 PM EST, March 7, 2014
UNCASVILLE — If there were challenges traversing the first season in American Athletic Conference history, UConn made them seem mostly internal, hard to see in public once the ball was tipped.
Truth is, there were times when coach Geno Auriemma simply didn't know how many players he would have to play or practice with on a roster trimmed tightly with nine scholarship players and two walk-ons.
And right from the start, just two games into the season, those numbers began to dwindle with the loss of Morgan Tuck (knee) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (elbow) for eight games after the Stanford win.
So Auriemma, a master of many trades as a young man, took up another as a veteran coach — juggler.
Of course, he has juggling assets no one else in the nation has — his usual core of high school All-Americans with interchangeable, superior skill sets.
The end result was UConn's 31-0 season, the extension of its winning streak to 37, highlighted by an 18-0 run through the conference. The Huskies won each game by at least 17 points and never trailed by more than seven.
"When you have a team like we do, you tend to win the conference championship," Auriemma said.
The Huskies play No. 8-seed Cincinnati in the quarterfinals Saturday about 2:30 p.m. The Bearcats advanced with a first-round 54-52 win over Central Florida on Friday. The Huskies have beaten the Bearcats twice this season by a combined 90 points, including a 57-point win at Cincinnati on Feb. 1. The Bearcats are coached by Jamelle Elliott, the former UConn player and assistant coach.
"Now it all comes down the mental state of the team," said Stefanie Dolson, a member of the AAC's first team, its defensive player of the year and co-winner of the sportsmanship award. "It's the end of the season. It's a matter of who is going to step up every game and deal with the physicality and toughness every team is going to bring. You need to last the full 40 minutes and not let yourself get tired."
Auriemma is taking nothing for granted.
"I don't think there's a team in America right now that's saying if they were to lose two of their top players we're still going to the Final Four," Auriemma said. "I don't think there is a team that says, well, if we have this injury or that injury we will still be OK. We are all in the same boat. The only difference is, we don't have to do it for five months."
UConn won its 18 conference games by an average of 37.4 points. And that included two wins over Louisville, the second seed, by an average of 18.5.
In those games, the Huskies never allowed more than 64 points — once to Rutgers, once to Louisville. And seven times their opponent was held to 40 or fewer.
The Huskies have four of the AAC's 11 first-team players — Dolson, Moriah Jefferson, Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart, the AAC player of the year.
"I was very surprised [to win] the defensive player award," Dolson said. "It's not like I didn't think I had the stats or the look of a defensive player. I think the coaches just recognized I helped my teammates as much as I could by making [opponents] take tough shots."
No player in the league is as tuned-in as Hartley. And no one has played as quick-paced or error-free this season as Jefferson, whose assist/turnover ratio is 2.96.
Dolson, Hartley and Stewart are among 15 players named to the Wooden Award ballot making them eligible for the Wooden All-American team, which will be announced during the NCAA regionals.
"Now with the postseason coming, we need to make sure we are extremely strong every game," Stewart said. "It's March when the best basketball is played. There is no time for let-ups. We've been tweaking some things in practice and now we are really looking forward [to the tournament]."
Hartley comes into the tournament averaging 18.7 points and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor (41.3 percent from three) in her past 10 games. And in combination with Jefferson, their defense held Louisville's Shoni Schimmel, one of Louisville's three all-AAC picks, to 4-for-14 shooting and nine points in 36 minutes in UConn's 68-48 win Monday night.
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