Some of the UConn women's basketball team's recent games, especially the ones played in the state of Connecticut, have not exactly been of the nail-biting variety.
In the seven games played at Gampel Pavilion, the XL Center, Mohegan Sun Arena or Webster Bank Arena, UConn's average margin of victory has been a shade under 38 points per game.
However, it would not unfair to say the Huskies have not been tested since the November 17 loss to Stanford. Whenever the team met for practice, UConn coach Geno Auriemma and his staff has attempted to put them in positions where failure is an option. In recent weeks that has been easier said than done since most of the male practice players live too far away during the break between the fall and spring semesters. However, with the classes in the spring semester starting on Tuesday, the male practice players were back and put to good use.
There was one spirited portion of practice when the game was tied at 49 and UConn had the final possession. Moriah Jefferson had the ball and was about to run a play - presumably for Breanna Stewart - when practice player Collins Nwafor reached in, poked the ball away from Jefferson and raced down the other end of the court for the go-ahead layup with about 2 seconds left. Kia Nurse's desperation heave from about 30-35 feet actually caught iron before bouncing away harmlessly.
"Coming out and playing against these guys, they are bigger than us, faster than us and it makes you have to play smart basketball," Jefferson said. "As you saw, any mistake you make they are going to steal it and it is going to be a turnover.
"I had a play in my head and it didn't work out so I try to run another play, he came out and stripped the ball right out of my hands. It hurt but you have to keep moving on."
In the next period, the final one in the practice, the UConn team fought back the best way they know how but making shots. It ended with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis draining a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer.
"I think we do need those situations," Stewart said. "Those practice players they are the best people we are going to see all season and they make it really competitive for us. You want to play those kinds of games, those are the types of things you want to do in practice. You want to win so when you lose, you want to keep playing. We won that last (period) but we were down by so much that we couldn't come back. A competitive game in practice, it kind of keeps your head level."
Assistant coach Shea Ralph, who spent a good part of practice coaching up the practice players, knows that the lessons learned from a spirited practice like the one on Friday could be invaluable for the team at some point this season.
"I know our staff feels like it is our job to prepare them for what they are going to see not only on a day to day basis but in our conference," Ralph said. "We need to win every game in our conference and that is important to us. We also understand we are going to face some teams that are going to challenge us so it is our job to make sure they are prepared for that."
When the media was able to check out practice UConn had its three freshmen (Kia Nurse, Courtney Ekmark and Gabby Williams) playing alongside sophomore Saniya Chong and Stewart. There were some rough patches as some of the team's most experienced players were on the sidelines and that is the point. UConn coach Geno Auriemma is known for putting his players in the most difficult scenarios during practice and the more lopsided the final margins are in actual games, the more challenging he tries to make practice. That was most certainly the case on Friday.
"They want to compete, they want to challenge themselves so we want to do that as much as we can, we try to put them out there and when they are playing our practice players they can do everything exactly right and still get their butts beat and I think that is good for them," Auriemma said. "It forces them to do things that ordinarily they wouldn't have to do.
"The practice level is obviously much different (with the practice players), we play more 5 on 5 when they get here, more core stuff when they get here and I look forward to this time of the year when the practice players are back," Auriemma said.
Labels: Breanna Stewart, Courtney Ekmark, Gabby Williams, Kia Nurse, Moriah Jefferson, Saniya Chong, Shea Ralph