Youth movement leads UConn WBB over Providence
With 6:04 left in the first quarter, Geno Auriemma decided he’d seen enough. With his team trailing 4-0 to Providence, the coach made a hockey-style line change, pulling Aaliyah Edwards, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams in favor of Aubrey Griffin, Anna Makurat and Nika Muhl. Soon after, Mir McLean subbed in for Olivia Nelson-Ododa, which left Paige Bueckers as the only starter still in the game.
“I was thinking we need to change the tempo of the game,” Auriemma said of the substitutions. “We need to change the way the game is being played.”
The results came almost immediately. On the next offensive possession after the subs, Bueckers hit a jumper, assisted by Makurat. Then, Griffin put back an offensive rebound off an aggressive drive from Muhl. After that, a pair of Makurat 3-pointers sandwiched a charge drawn by McLean.
In a flash, the Huskies erased a 12-7 deficit – the largest they’ve faced this season – to take their first lead of the game. Providence responded to regain the lead before UConn went ahead for good with 1:35 in the first quarter off a basket from Griffin.
“We put a group of players out there that picked up the tempo and that's what changed the game,” Auriemma said. “It was really that simple.”
After the strong first impression, Auriemma stuck with his young guns en route to a 87-50 win over the Friars. Griffin, Makuart, McLean and Muhl all saw the most action of their respective seasons all while Nelson-Ododa played just 15 minutes and Williams only got 14 – tied for the fewest of her career.
McLean and Muhl had particularly promising performances. While fellow freshmen Bueckers and Edwards have both established themselves as indispensable pieces, McLean and Muhl are still fighting for a consistent spot in the rotation.
Both made a strong case to stay in. The former grabbed three rebounds and two points while the latter set a new career mark with four assists, though she’s still in search of her first points. But to Auriemma, any production they add while on the floor is a bonus.
“We need their energy and that's the one thing I know I'm gonna get from the two of them every day, every practice, every drill. We're going to get that energy from the two of them,” he said. “The other stuff, we may or may not (get) but I think the two of them when they get in, hopefully they do the things that in practice come out as energy players and for now, that's what we need.”
No player stood out more than Griffin. The sophomore had struggled out of the gate this season, often lacking the burst and disruptiveness that made her so effective last year. Some of that could’ve been attributed to a back injury which limited her to just eight points against DePaul, though.
After a 10-day lay-off, Griffin exploded with her best performance of the year. She grabbed a season-high nine rebounds, eight of which came on the offensive glass – more than the rest of her teammates combined (seven) and as many as she’d gotten all season prior to Saturday.
Griffin also posted 18 points, a season-best and second-most behind Bueckers. Even more impressive, only eight of those points came off an offensive board, which meant the sophomore scored 10 points in the flow of the offense.
Griffin is also a very strong defender. Though the stat sheet only credits her with two steals, she played aggressive defense and often pressed Providence’s ball handler one-on-one the entire length of the court.
“Aubrey played amazing,” Bueckers said. “She had a really good practice the other day. It was just like the game she had today where she was confident making plays on offense and defense. So she had a really great game.”
“This past week, she's had three or four days where she's been really, really, really, really good,” Auriemma added.
Griffin’s ability has never been in question. While this was her best performance as a sophomore, she had already flashed her potential as a freshman with a 25-point, 12-rebound night at Seton Hall and a 15-point, 16-rebound effort against Temple.
The missing piece for Griffin has always been consistency. And one good performance won’t convince Auriemma that she’s found it.
“So if you ask me, ‘What's the difference between Aubrey today than Aubrey yesterday?’ I would tell you I have no idea,” he said. “If you ask me, ‘How will Aubrey be tomorrow, relative to how she was today, I would have no idea. If I did tell you, I'd be lying. So for me, every day I show up and I'm either pleasantly surprised that Aubrey’s like she was today or disappointed that she's not.”
Though Providence is far from the best measuring stick, UConn’s win over the Friars still showed that it can count on its younger players to win games. The Huskies’ three juniors only accounted for 24 of the team’s 87 points despite being responsible for 50.1 percent of the scoring in their first six games. If anything, it proved that Bueckers is the only truly indispensable piece on the roster.
But for a program that’s relied heavily on its five starters in recent years, finally having a deep, well-rounded rotation is certainly a welcome sight.