UConnReport - Geno still not sold on UConn’s defense after win over Xavier
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Geno still not sold on UConn’s defense after win over Xavier

In its first 10 minutes against UConn women’s basketball, Xavier ended more possession with a turnover than it did with a shot. Deploying a halfcourt trap, the Huskies gave the Musketeers fits as the visitors only found the basket twice on 12 attempts and finished the quarter with a measly seven points.

UConn held Xavier to just 59 points in the win and has not given up more than 65 points in a game all season. Now, the Huskies rank sixth in the nation at 48.5 points allowed per game and have limited opponents to 28.7 percent shooting – which is third-best in the country.

The Huskies haven’t exactly faced stiff competition, however. Seton Hall had the best scoring offense of the bunch, ranking 25th nationally, while Xavier is 88th. But on the other end, UMass Lowell is statistically the worst scoring offense in the country.

UConn has shown flashes of total dominance on defense – like the first quarter against Xavier – where opposing teams can barely get the ball over halfcourt. Despite these stretches of success, Geno Auriemma still isn’t convinced his team has what it takes to be elite defensively, a point he’s harped on since before the season.

“We're not a really good defensive team,” he said. “I'm not looking at the score. I mean I could care less what the score is.”

Defensively, Auriemma highlighted his team’s lack of communication as its biggest deficiency. He pointed to a play at the end of the first half when Paige Bueckers called out what Xavier planned to run, but nobody on the Huskies reacted appropriately.

“The problem is that we have a team right now of some young guys, some older guys, that just don't communicate well,” he said. “That's maybe a sign of poor coaching. Maybe we're not spending enough time on things that we need to be spending more time on. But that's the other thing that I'm finding difficult is getting kids to communicate, talk, open their mouth, and listen. More importantly, listen.”

If that improves, the coach expects the defense to get better as well. However, that won’t be a cure-all. Against Seton Hall, Lauren Park-Lane gashed the Huskies for 29 points. On Tuesday, UConn will face Maddy Siegrist, one of the best players in the Big East who averages 24.4 points per game.

To this point, none of the Huskies have proven themselves to be a lockdown defensive player like Moriah Jefferson, Kia Nurse, or Gabby Williams, to name a few recent examples. But Auriemma is excited about the challenge of facing Siegrist and hopes someone will step up to shut her down.

“That's going to be really good for us because we have to be able to identify who can identify who and who can shut down somebody on the other team without needing help every time down the floor,” he said. “Maybe that game Tuesday night will help us identify who that is.”

Passing prowess

After a miserable offensive year (by UConn's standards) last season, this year’s team has improved considerably in that department. UConn employs a four-guard set plus Olivia Nelson-Ododa as its starting lineup, which means there are plenty of playmakers on the floor. Through four games, the Huskies are third in the nation with 22.8 assists per game.

“One thing that's significantly better than last year's (team), we’re a much better passing team. So that creates more opportunities for everybody,” Auriemma said. “I think the ball moves better. We're able to use the whole court. We get rid of the ball quickly. We have a team that's willing to pass the ball. That's somewhat unusual, maybe, in today's day and age. They want to pass it and for the most part, we're a pretty good passing team.”

Bueckers leads the squad with 25 assists, though Anna Makurat and Evina Westbrook aren’t far behind with 19 and 17 assists, respectively. That’s helped four different players average double-figures in scoring and seven average at least 7.0 points per game.

There are some caveats, however. At times, Auriemma thinks his team can be too pass-happy – particularly Bueckers.

“I'm sure Paige will get a Christmas gift from all the teams that we play because...once we get a big lead she starts throwing it to their players because she's from Minnesota and, you know, she feels sorry for them, you know. Yeah. You betcha,” he quipped.

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Nelson-Ododa trending upwards

In her last three games, Olivia Nelson-Ododa is averaging 18.7 points per game on 21-26 shooting. Only once before in her career has she scored at least 16 points in three straight games, but she didn’t do it with nearly the same efficiency (Notre Dame, DePaul, and Oklahoma were the opponents during her prior streak and she shot 28-41).

Though Nelson-Ododa didn’t attempt any jumpers like she did against Seton Hall and Creighton, she drove to the rim off the dribble one time – another move she hasn’t shown before. She also grabbed 11 rebounds after only collecting two – both on the offensive glass – last game.

However, none of the Huskies’ first four opponents have featured anyone even remotely close to Nelson-Ododa’s size and certainly nobody as talented as her. Though these recent performances have been encouraging, she still needs to prove that she can play at that level against an elite opponent like Baylor or South Carolina.

“She wasn't facing anybody on her level and that is going to come down the road. And I guess time will tell. But, again, that's the next progression,” Auriemma said. So whatever rebound Lou (Katie Lou Samuelson) used to get or Pheesa (Napheesa Collier) used to get, you've got to get those now. So that changes things a little bit and it's a great opportunity for her. So far, I think she's played pretty well.”

CLICK HERE to check out all the postgame footage from UConn's tangle with the Musketeers!