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How Ready is UConn WBB for March?

Monday night’s 97-79 win over No. 11 South Carolina closed out the non-conference portion of UConn’s schedule. It also offered us the last chance to determine what UConn is capable of against a top-flight opponent, along with what still remains elusive.

One correction came just out of halftime on Monday. The Huskies ran away with the victory in the third quarter to collect their third win over a ranked opponent this season. UConn has had many cold starts to the second half this year, but they were able to correct the habit against the Gamecocks.

On the opening possession of the third quarter, Katie Lou Samuelson fired up a three. It missed, but Christyn Williams grabbed the board and passed it out to Napheesa Collier. Collier had a rare misfire on the jumper, but Williams was there again and finished the play with the putback.

From there, the Huskies kept fighting, turning a one-point margin at the half into an 18-point lead that ultimately sealed the win in ten minutes. It is another gear that had been missing of late.

Few expect UConn to be challenged over the remainder of conference play or at the AAC tournament. With the pre-NCAA tests behind them, here’s what we’ve learned about the Huskies:

If the Huskies are going to head to the Final Four, and possibly a championship, the seniors are going to carry them there.

Samuelson and Collier, who became the highest scoring pair of teammates in UConn history in the win, have led this team all season long. One or the other led the Huskies in scoring in all but three games so far this season. Last night was no exception, with Collier leading the way, and the senior duo combining for an impressive 60 points against South Carolina.

Collier was particularly impressive in the win, with a stat line that captured the national spotlight. She posted her 13th double-double of the season with 31 points (on efficient 15-of-23 from the field) and 16 rebounds, adding 6 assists and did not turn the ball over.

They work off one another, too: of their combined 10 assists, seven ended in a bucket for their fellow senior, and the two managed to combine to score or assist on over 75 percent of UConn’s field goals in the victory. If the Huskies seniors continue to combine for such a high level of play, they’ll be close to unstoppable in March.

UConn has it figured out on the offensive end

Failure to get going on the offensive end plagued UConn through their tight games and two losses this season. After the last three games, it seems safe to say that the Huskies have it figured out.

In their last three contests, UConn has scored an average of 108 points per game. Their 97 points against South Carolina are the most since scoring 99 against DePaul in late November. Additionally, UConn has been incredibly efficient in this span, posting a higher points per scoring attempt in the last three games than they have in any other three games this season.

The offensive success can be attributed to the seniors. Samuelson put her shooting slump behind her and Collier has hit the 30-point threshold in consecutive games. But don’t lose sight of the role Crystal Dangerfield is playing in the offensive renaissance.

In the two games prior to South Carolina, Dangerfield assisted on a quarter of the Huskies baskets. Against the Gamecocks, Dangerfield was credited with four assists — a number that isn’t indicative of how vital she was in distributing the ball and running the offense. She has demonstrated a knack to get the ball not to where her teammates are, but where they’re heading. When Dangerfield is at her best, the Huskies share the ball and the offense shines.

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Defensively, the Huskies still have some work to do

South Carolina hit 12 shots in the first quarter. A Gamecock team that has struggled from the floor (shooting 43 percent on the season) came out firing against the Huskies, and shot 57 percent, often due to UConn defensive breakdowns.

The Huskies have allowed 70 points four times this year, which is just one time fewer than they have in the last two regular seasons combined. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise: UConn lost its two best defensive players, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, to graduation last spring. However, the defense hasn’t improved as the season races toward March.

The four games with 70+ points allowed were at Notre Dame in December, the loss at Louisville, and the last two games. Perimeter defense, in particular, has been a problem in these games, with Asia Durr sinking five threes on the Huskies at Louisville and Temple nailing 14 shots from beyond the arc last weekend.

Auriemma doesn’t seem very confident that it will improve either, saying after Monday’s victory, “We can’t guard anybody. We have to make a lot of shots against really good teams.” He also added: “If we have a bad shooting night, we are going to lose, plain and simple.”

The Huskies did make some adjustments in the second half, where they allowed just 12 made shots — the same number as in just the first quarter — and held South Carolina to 40 percent shooting. The defensive intensity in the second half was dramatically different from the start of the game. If the Huskies must find a way to carry that intensity over into full games come March.

The freshmen are bringing more to the table

Like almost every freshman does, Christyn Williams hit a wall after her dominant 28-point performance at Notre Dame in December. Monday night, she broke through that wall

Williams scored 19 points on another big stage, tying the most she has scored since leading UConn in a defeat of the Irish. She reached those 19 points with incredible efficiency, on just eight field goal attempts. Including her trips to the line, she scored over two points per shot attempt. She added four rebounds, a block and a steal as well.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa also had a good game, as the only Husky to come off the bench before the final minutes. Her stat line does not read all that impressively, but she had immediate impact when she came into the game.

“When Olivia came in I thought our defense changed, because now all of a sudden we had a bigger presence in the lane,” said Auriemma after the game. He added that her presence impacted South Carolina, noting that “they were forced to shoot more, and they didn’t get to the basket as often.”

When they did, Nelson-Ododa was there — three blocked shots in just nine minutes. When she entered the game, UConn was up five. When she checked out at the the end of the third, UConn led by 18.

It was the kind of game-defining performance that will define UConn’s season, one way or another, the next time they play an elite opponent — come NCAA tournament time.