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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Challenging day at practice for UConn

When I walked into Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center for the part of yesterday's practice which is open to the media, the first thing I saw happened to be Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson standing off the court looking on. It didn't take long to realize that the Huskies' No. 2 and 3 scorers would not be practicing. One of my first thoughts was "well, this ought to be interesting."

Jefferson and Tuck are not only two of UConn's best players but its two most vocal as well. There are times when demanding UConn coach Geno Auriemma will pull the duo as well as Breanna Stewart to challenge the younger players to figure things out without the heart and soul of this year's squad there to show the way. Sure enough watching the defensive 4 on 4 drill take place wasn't pretty. When it came time to run offensive drills, Auriemma's irritation increased with each passing possession. Finally Gabby Williams had back to back scoring plays and practice finally came to an end when Napheesa Collier hit a driving layup.

"When you are down two seniors, two starters, you have to step it up," Stewart said. "Not just me but our entire team and that is what I told them before practice that we are down two people and we have to make sure we have step up and other people need to assume those roles."

While Auriemma said he is leaning towards Gabby Williams starting, no player could benefit from these next two weeks than a struggling Collier. A play like the one she had to end practice could give the talented freshman a confidence boost.

"You want to (make an) impact because that is where Coach has trust in us," Collier said. "We do things in practice the way we want to do them in games so we try to do things the right way in practice."

Collier made an almost immediate impact when the season began but recently had some struggles. Collier played a total 27 minutes against Houston (when UConn played without Tuck) and South Florida which matches the fewest minutes she has played in back to back games this season. She has shown signs of life in the last two games averaging 10 points, 4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocked shots. However, early in the season she seemed to make more of an impact than her statistics might indicate and in recent games, the numbers make it seem like she played better than she actually has. Yes, Collier has hit the dreaded freshman wall and these next couple of weeks could be a perfect time to get back to playing as aggressively as she was earlier in the season.
"I wish it happened in the beginning to get it over with but it is something you have to push through and hopefully I will get over it soon," Collier said. "I think it is a lot of mental and I just need to get my head right.

"I think (making up for Tuck's absence) it will help everyone because we will have a different mentality of going 110 percent now. I definitely plan to, I am not going out saying 'oh, I hope I suck today.' It is hard because a lot of people before college haven't gone through it so it is definitely a struggle but there is just an adjustment period."

Another player who could see a jump in minutes is sophomore center Natalie Butler. Yesterday was the first time since she injured her thumb in the preseason that Butler was playing without her left wrist, hand and thumb taped in order to hold a protective splint in place.

Butler said it was her first full practice without any protection on her thumb. I asked her if she stomped on the splint in celebration of being able to play without it and her answer was classic.
"Yesterday during practice I got frustrated because the ball kept bouncing off of it and I had a lot of tape so I ripped it off and just threw it, I was so mad so I kind of had that reaction of 'I am not playing with this thing.' I was cleared so I was allowed to do that. You have to get adjusted to it again because I have mobility with the splint, there was a splint underneath my tape so it was restricted, it is weird being able to catch the ball, it is weird being able to shoot left handed with motion and mobility so it is going to be an adjustment but I happy that it is finally off."

After practice I asked Auriemma about who challenging practice was without his two more vocal players and it led to this entertaining tangent.
"The actual vocal part of practice, that is slowly that has been disappearing for 100 years now," Auriemma said. "Kids today just don't grasp the value of it and some coaches don't believe in it and say 'non-verbal communication is more important.' I am sure it is but I don't like guys who don't talk on the court and today's players struggle.

"Let's face it, they (Jefferson and Tuck) know what is going on all the time so now you are asking players who have no idea what is going on and they already don't want to communicate, it is a struggle because those last five minutes of practice ...

"You know what you have to be today to be a really good coach in college basketball, you have to be a football coach coaching basketball and you have to change the rules - after every possession call timeout, we have 20 seconds or 30 seconds to snap the ball and we call another play. After that, you call a timeout, tell them how they were being guarded that last possession, tell them what adjustment to make and then we go out and do it. Then you call timeout and when the defense makes another adjustment, you tell them 'this is what we are going to run.' That is the way the game is going because kids are coming out of high school with less and less and less of an understanding of what they are seeing and it just takes longer."

I happened to notice that Collier's high school team (Incarnate Word Academy) defeated Morgan Tuck's former team (Bolingbrook) 61-39 in the MLK Showcase.

Thinking there might have been some playful banter between the two, I asked both Collier and Tuck about it. Tuck was unaware that the game actually took place but Collier did receive an update from one of the team's assistant coaches.

"I forgot to trash talk her, I was going to," Collier said with a laugh.

What's interesting is that the star of the victory was freshman Kiki Britzmann, who came into the game averaging 6.4 points per game but had a team-high 15 points and Britzmann happens to wear the No. 24 that Collier donned with such distinction in the previous three seasons.

"I knew she had it," Collier said. "I knew her before, she came to the camps and played with us."


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