STORRS — Even No. 1 UConn understands its chance to win a ninth national championship balances on a tightrope.
Of course, the one the Huskies (25-0) stand on is spun of sturdier material than those keeping every other team from falling into the gorge.
Let's face it; no other women's college program has a starting five comparable to UConn. But the problem the Huskies are beginning to confront is that there might soon be no more than five or six able-bodied players to carry the load.
"What do we need, five?" guard Bria Hartley said. "That's all you need, enough to play the game. If we had to, if it came down to it, we could all go 40 minutes. You do what you need to do. It's part of being a competitor. You have to be prepared to play 40 every game, if that's what Coach needs."
After his team's 16-game winning streak was ended by the Huskies on Sunday, Louisville coach Jeff Walz was asked if a team, even UConn, can run to the wire with only a thin core available come NCAA Tournament time.
"Of course you can," Walz said. "I say this again … it must be awful to have to play Breanna Stewart 37 minutes. I have no idea how [Geno Auriemma] sleeps at night. Imagine him going home on Sunday knowing he had to play Moriah Jefferson 40 minutes and Stefanie Dolson for 39. I probably wouldn't be able to eat. Look who [Auriemma] is playing. It's not like they are playing two walk-ons."
Walz is right. Auriemma's five have All-America pedigree. But the Huskies are dangling perilously close to losing any margin for future injury or foul trouble. In a season that has offered few concerns, depth is now at the nail-biting stage.
"We have to put [packing] bubbles around our guys," Auriemma said. "We can't afford to get anyone else hurt. It's been unbelievable."
With 18 seconds remaining in the first half of UConn's 81-64 win over the No. 4 Cardinals at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies were thinned out again when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis slammed onto the floor.
The scene was reminiscent of the accident that sidelined the junior on Nov. 11 against Stanford.
"It looked like the same exact thing," Jefferson said. "We're all standing there thinking, 'please be OK.' "
Mosqueda-Lewis missed eight games with a compressed nerve in her right elbow after the fall in November.
This time it was her left elbow that took the brunt of the blow.
That left UConn with just six players to fend off Louisville for most of the second half. The Huskies, with just nine scholarship players at the start of the season, were already without Morgan Tuck (knee) and Brianna Banks (ankle). And Tuck's injury is season-ending.
Apparently, UConn will survive this body blow. Although she didn't start the second half, Mosqueda-Lewis, her elbow wrapped and braced, played seven minutes in the second half. And although she missed her only shot and added just one assist and one rebound to her stat line, her presence was enough to reassure there likely is no serious injury.
"I think Kaleena was very worried because she'd injured her [other] elbow before," Hartley said. "But it doesn't seem as bad."
And UConn's training staff has a week to get her well before the team plays again at South Florida on Sunday. Banks, who has missed the past two games with a recurring ankle sprain, also hopes to return.
"It really doesn't matter how you feel about the situation," Jefferson said. "If you had to go into the NCAAs with only five players, you do what you have to do. And anyway, we practice as hard as we play. So we're actually going 40 minutes every day as it is."
Auriemma said the situation has been on his mind since Tuck's season ended with surgery following her career-high 19-point performance against Houston on Jan. 7.
"We've been there since the decision was made for Morgan to have her surgery," Auriemma said. "That put us in a really tough spot because now all you need is one more [injury] … Short of playing with four players, there's nothing that would need to happen to put us [deeper] into the danger zone.
"We can't afford anything else happening; a sprained ankle, three fouls in the first half, someone getting the flu at the wrong time. Everything has to go right from here on.
"As I told [broadcaster Rebecca Lobo] after the game, it's not easy to deal with right now. But I don't think anyone is going to have a telethon to send us a couple of extra players when we need them. It is what it is. This is who we have. And we need to manage it the best way we can. But it's not going to be easy the last two months."
Player Of Week
Stewart was the AAC player of the week for the third time this season. Stewart scored 44 points in wins over SMU and Louisville, shooting 17-for-34 with 18 rebounds, nine assists and six blocked shots.