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UConn WBB handles adversity in win over Seton Hall

Aubrey Griffin couldn’t escape the past before UConn’s win over Seton Hall. The Huskies were were playing her parents’ alma mater and Griffin saw her mother’s name and a photo of her dad in the hallways of Walsh Gymnasium. When she stepped onto the court, she looked across at two old teammates from Ossining High School. And in the crowd, a large contingent of her former team, and plenty of other familiar faces, took the hour drive south to watch them play.

But because of that, there may not have been a better place for Griffin to make the first big statement in her young college career. The freshman exploded with 25 points and 12 rebounds -- both career highs. She went to the free throw line 12 times -- 3x more than Seton Hall’s entire team -- making 10. She stepped out and hit her first collegiate three as well.

And it was only a preview of what’s yet to come.

“You're going to see it a lot in her career and you’re going to see it often,” Geno Auriemma said. “I don’t know if she’s ready to do it right now but this was just -- you’re going to see this a lot. That kid’s capable of doing things that very few kids can. She has a knack for the ball. The kid’s unique, man. She’s something else.”

Everywhere she went, Griffin wreaked havoc on the floor. On offense, she crashed the glass for six offensive rebounds. Defensively, she made life miserable for Seton Hall with suffocating defense that led to two steals and a thunderous block that resulted in a breakaway layup.

“My teammates, they were hyped (after the block),” Griffin said. “It was a good feeling.”

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As much as Thursday night’s performance served as an important step in her development, she also played a critical role in helping UConn secure the 92-78 win.

In the first quarter, Olivia Nelson-Ododa Christyn Williams both found themselves in foul trouble early three and both ended up on the bench for an extended stretch of the game. That left the Huskies with a big void in the scoring and rebounding department -- to say nothing of Crystal Dangerfield’s absence. Griffin answered the bell by finishing behind only Megan Walker in points scored and pacing the team on the glass.

While that type of performance won’t happen every night -- especially not this early in her career -- Griffin’s arrow is undoubtedly pointing up. And right now, nobody knows just how high she’ll go.

“She made some unbelievable plays,” Auriemma said. “She’s a unique kind of player. She’s very different than anybody we have now and different than anybody we’ve had in a long, long time. Where does she go from here? I don't know.”

Role players take center stage

While Griffin was certainly the headliner, UConn’s role players were crucial in the victory. Entering the game, the Huskies’ Core Four accounted for 81.1 percent of the team’s points. But with Dangerfield sidelined with injury and Nelson-Ododa and Williams forced to the bench with fouls, that left Megan Walker as the one still standing. She did her part with 29 points (more on that in a sec) but that still left a lot of scoring unaccounted for.

Griffin’s 25 points were a pleasant surprise but she wasn’t the only one with a career night. Molly Bent reached double-figures for the first time in her four seasons with 10 points, using the three-ball to her advantage and slicing up the defense with a pair of impressive drives to the basket.

Bent is a fan-favorite and at home, crowd volume typically peaks when she makes a basket. But on Thursday, there was no bigger fan of the senior than Auriemma.

“Nobody deserves more to be able to play meaningful minutes in a meaningful game as a senior at UConn,” he said. “It means more to her and Kyla (Irwin) than anyone will ever know, to be able to play meaningful minutes and big games on the road, their senior year at Connecticut without having played much at all the previous three years.

"Right now, Molly's probably the happiest person in Connecticut. No doubt about it. Nobody works harder than her and she deserves it. I'm really, really proud.”

With Nelson-Ododa limited to just 14 minutes, UConn also got a strong effort on the boards from Anna Makurat. She finished with a career-best 11 rebounds which helped the Huskies hold a 45-24 advantage on the glass. And not to be ignored, Kyla Irwin led the team with five assists.

Once Dangerfield returns, the Core Four will still dominate UConn’s scoring. But each player outside of that who saw the court against the Pirates has shown they can find ways to contribute without putting the ball in the hoop. If they keep it up, the Huskies might be looking at a strong eight-player rotation.

All-American Megan Walker

If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: This is Megan Walker’s team.

If UConn’s struggling, Walker is going to demand the ball and figure out a way to put it through the rim. Against Seton Hall, where the Huskies’ trailed by as many as nine at one point and missed three of its best players for various chunks of time, Walker was the sole player to go wire-to-wire for all 40 minutes -- nine more than the next closest. Her 29 points were the second-most of her career.

But in typical Auriemma fashion, her scoring line was the last thing he looked at.

“She had three offensive rebounds tonight, correct? How many games have we played? Seven?” he asked the assembled media postgame. “She had a total of two in the previous six and she had three tonight.”

Since Walker first stepped onto campus, Auriemma has pushed her to be more than just a scorer or just a rebounder. To him, her biggest strength lines in her ability to a little bit of everything on the floor -- something he continues to harp on.

“I said to Megan, ‘This is how you score a lot of points. Not as a jump shooter, but as a jump shooter, as a driver, as a rebounder, at the free throw line. That’s how you score a lot of points,’” Auriemma said.

Despite a stat line of 21.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, Walker seems to be flying under the radar in terms of national recognition for her play. Auriemma tried to change that after the game.

“She's played like an All-American since since the season started,” said Auriemma, who has coached 42 All-Americans in his career. “If you think about this season, what our record would be if she hasn’t played the way she’s played.”