Without Stewart, UConn Shows Balance In Win Over LSU. By Rich Elliott.
By Rich Elliott
HARTFORD – Senior All-American Breanna Stewart has been a rock that the UConn women’s basketball team has leaned on for the past three-plus seasons.
There have been instances when she has spent time on the bench during games due to foul trouble. But Stewart has been a model of consistency throughout her career, playing in 92 straight games since sitting out against Idaho in the first round of the 2013 NCAA tournament due to an ankle injury.
Stewart’s run of good fortune finally came to an end Monday when an injured right ankle forced her to the bench. It was the responsibility of her teammates, both young and old, to pick her up this time. And they delivered a balanced performance in an 86-40 victory over LSU before 10,183 at the XL Center.
``I thought defensively we were pretty good,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``I think it took us a while offensively to get into any kind of a rhythm. Taking Stewie out of the lineup is like taking four players out: Our best inside player, our best high post player against the zone, our best 3-point shooter and one of our best passers. So, all of a sudden, things change and we can’t possibly look the same without her in the lineup. So I thought we looked a lot better in the second half. I thought Moriah (Jefferson) was really, really good, and (Morgan) Tuck, who I would expect would be really good given the fact that Stewie didn’t play.”
Natalie Butler (left thumb) and Saniya Chong (right knee) also did not play for UConn.
Jefferson led the Huskies with 17 points, four rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Tuck added 14 points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
Five players scored in double figures for UConn (9-0), who has won 46 straight games. Five players also had at least four rebounds. Three players had at least five assists.
``You miss a player like Stewie at all given times,’’ Jefferson said. ``But I think the good thing about (Monday) is a lot of times we looked up and we didn’t realize it. Not saying that she’s not the type of player that she is, but because so many people stepped up and we were flowing with the ball I think it was a good thing for us. And, of course, we cannot wait for her to get back. But it’s good to see that if she’s out we have guys that will step up and take control.’’
Stewart, who leads the Huskies in scoring (22.9), rebounds (8.1) and blocks (3.4) and is second in assists (4.4), was injured during practice Saturday when she landed on Tierney Lawlor’s foot after taking a jump shot.
UConn does not play against until facing No. 6 Maryland in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York Dec. 28.
``She didn’t practice all (last) week then showed up for practice and lasted a grand total of 12 minutes on Saturday,’’ Auriemma said. ``And it wasn’t real bad so let’s see what we can do. Let’s see if we can get her ready for Monday and we’ll make a decision in shootaround. She tried to talk (team athletic trainer) Rosemary (Ragle) into letting her play, and Rosemary said `no.’
“We’ve got another week before we play again. So I would expect that she’ll be back to normal. She’d better be.”
Gabby Williams finished with 13 points and five rebounds for UConn before leaving the game with 4:58 remaining in the fourth quarter after being shaken up by a flagrant foul by Akilah Bethel. Bethel grabbed Williams’ left leg and she fell to the floor.
Kia Nurse contributed 11 points, three rebounds, a season-high eight assists and a career-high five steals for the Huskies. But it was the play of freshmen Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier that truly stood out.
``It’s not easy to play at a high level when you’re a freshman,’’ Auriemma said. ``And I thought those two played great.’’
Samuelson, who made her first career start in place of Stewart, finished with 14 points, five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes.
Collier produced seven points, four steals and season-highs of 12 rebounds and six blocks in 32 minutes. It was her second straight start.
Samuelson and Collier combined for 14 points and nine rebounds in the second half.
``It’s important for anybody to have success at any point in time,’’ Jefferson said. ``It’s a confidence builder. And, obviously, I know going in as a freshman that it’s not the easiest thing in the world. So you’ve got to celebrate when those guys have games like (Monday) and we’re really proud and excited for them.’’
Rina Hill led LSU (6-6) with 10 points. Alexis Hyder added nine points, 12 rebounds and three assists for the Tigers, who shot 29.6 percent from the field and committed 28 turnovers.
The Huskies learned a great deal about themselves Monday. Not that they want to spend a considerable amount of time without Stewart in the lineup, but they discovered that there are players on the roster that have the ability to step up when called upon.
``I think it was really good for our team and us to be able to play without Stewie and our team to play as well as we did,” Samuelson said referencing the play of herself and Collier. ``Obviously, we never want Stewie to be out, especially in her last year. It’s just a bummer that it happened but she’ll be back next week. It was good for us to see how we can play and how we have to adjust to that. So I think we’re just going to learn from it and cherish the moments we do have with her right now and just grow from it.’’