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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Friday, February 13, 2015

UConn youngsters learning that practice makes perfect

This is lucky season No. 13 that I have covered the UConn women's basketball program. The previous 12 seasons when I was the primary beatwriter, the Huskies reached the Final Four 11 times and won seven of the program's nine national titles. If I have learned nothing else during this time it is that the more unstoppable people outside the program say Auriemma's Huskies are the more difficult he makes life for them in practice.

As I headed up to Storrs for practice the day before the Huskies resume their march to the American Athletic Conference regular-season title, I thought Auriemma was going to be even more hard to please than normal considering that the Huskies were coming off an impressive takedown of top-ranked and previously-undefeated South Carolina the last time out. My suspicions were confirmed as he kept the trio of sophomore Saniya Chong and freshmen Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams on the court for a good 20-30 minutes.

Playing alongside either Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis or Kiah Stokes, they had to come up with defensive stops against a quartet featuring three male practice players and former UConn captain Kelly Faris, who was in the area and took part in some drills.

The drill was not just a case of matching up player for player. The four Huskies had to start with at least one foot in the paint and race out to cover the 3-point threats across the court. The team with the ball was asked to pass quickly and make it so at least one of them had an open shot from the perimeter.

Each time Faris or sweet-shooting male practice player Ryan Probst would drain a shot, Auriemma would rip into his players. If they managed to deflect a pass away or force a missed shot and fail to come up with the loose ball, his frustration would only increase.

In the middle of all of this he said of Probst "I didn't know he could shoot." The reality of the matter is that after practice he said that Probst " is the best, he doesn't miss any shots."

It was no coincidence that his three most vocal players (Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart) were on the baseline and not on the court. Auriemma wanted his young players to learn the value of communicating on the court.

"I think there are opportunities during the season to make a point especially in practice," Auriemma said. "It is not something you necessarily plan for. It is not like 'I am going to there today and I am going to do this.' You have a plan going into practice but today the practice guys were on fire, they were on top of their game.  When they get it going like that, they it is a huge challenge for our guys to get stops. The more they make shots, the harder it is to get stops. The harder it is to get stops, the more I am on them to get stops. It fires up the practice kids to make shots so it just kind of snowballs. One group invariably gets trapped out there and a couple of guys are trapped out there and they are the ones that are constantly giving up buckets so they are the ones that catch the wrath."

After practice Nurse said she understood what Auriemma was trying to accomplish and it is up to her, Williams and Chong to try to learn as much as they can during these practices.

"He always puts us in situations when it seems difficult and you have to do everything perfect just to beat them," Nurse said. "Those are situations you are going to be in at some point in your life and they are things that are going to make us better, force us to do the little things and force us to play the perfect defensive possession."
The upperclassmen have been through all of this before. I wasn't covering the team at the time but I still recall when UConn beat Tennessee in the historic first meeting between the teams back in 1995 and Rebecca Lobo was asked in a television interview what is next for her and the Huskies and she deadpanned "I am going back to being the worst post player in the country." Yes, that was how Auriemma referred to her.

"It is why we play well in big games because we put ourselves in those situations, you have a big game and can't get complacent after that," UConn junior guard Moriah Jefferson said. "You have to play hard through those practices and stay strong.

It is most important to have our guys talk, we are trying to talk. There are times when you are in the heat of the moment, it seems harder than it actually is. At the end of the day, if we just open our mouths we will be better at practice.

"You kind of learn how to grind it out. I am proud of Kia Nurse and Gabby, they really pushed through."

Speaking of Lobo, she is one of the members of the 1994-95 team expected to be on hand when the 1994-95 team is honored at halftime. It is also for Play for Kay game so fans are encouraged to wear pink.


Anonymous Loyal Husky Fan said...

Nice to see the practice players getting a mention in this article. They are truly the unsung heroes and deserve all the pub they can get.

1:19 PM 

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