Women’s Basketball: Geno, Huskies trying to find the right fit
STORRS — Geno Auriemma has teetered into unfamiliar territory — between a rock and a hard place.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit trying to figure out where to go with that,” Auriemma said Wednesday, his head down, speaking slowly. “We’re kind of in a little bit of a conundrum, so to speak.”
Auriemma, 1,040 wins, 19 Final Fours, 11 national titles and all, is running out of answers when it comes to divvying up playing time for UConn’s bench.
“We have guys that need to play, and I know that,” he continued. “When they play, they don’t play the way I expect them to play. And then if I keep playing them, they think that playing like that is OK. And then if I don’t play them, then I’m not giving them an opportunity to get better. It’s a fine line that I’m trying to figure out.”
Right now, 14 games into the season, there is no easy answer. The Huskies’ bench, underperforming and seldom-used, has befuddled the Hall of Fame coach. Confidence and trust in the unit have waned.
The Huskies, ranked No. 3 in the country, are 13-1 largely on the strength of their starters. Crystal Dangerfield, Christyn Williams, Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Megan Walker, who missed two games with strep throat, have proven to be not only productive, but also ultra-durable. Consider this: They’ve accounted for 89 percent of the team’s scoring while playing an average of 32.9 minutes.
Auriemma isn’t in a situation, though, where he can sit one of them without hesitation. He doesn’t have that luxury given the volatility of his bench, a unit that’s been outplayed more times than not this season.
Forward Kyla Irwin’s best effort came as a starter, when she stepped in for Walker and pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds over 25 minutes in a 98-42 win at St. Louis. The junior’s played 13.8 minutes a game, slightly ahead of Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-5 freshman averaging 4.3 points and 2.6 rebounds across 10.4 minutes.
“There’s been some great players that didn’t start for us and came off the bench and changed the game tremendously,” Auriemma recalled Friday before practice at Gampel Pavilion. “Nykesha Sales or Diana Taurasi her freshman year, or Asjha Jones or Tamika Williams or Shea Ralph, I can go on and on how many guys we used to bring off the bench who just lit it up when they came in.”
“The reality of the situation is we’re not in that situation,” he said, calling it a “coach’s dilemma” that he must bear. “We’re not in that situation. We’re having to manage the situation that we’re in. We’re having to do the best that we can with what we have right now, whether it’s because of talent or because of personality types. I just don’t think it’s going to change, but you never know.”
Auriemma likes the energy and toughness Batouly Camara provides off the bench, but so far, injuries have impacted her availability. Camara, who missed six games because of a sprained knee, is eager to produce.
“It can be really tough, but I’ve been through this process before,” Camara, a 6-2 forward, said of the injuries. “I think with consistency, that builds trust in my teammates. We see ‘Touly during practice and we feel more confident with her in the game.”
Added Dangerfield: “She gets on the floor. She’ll go make the hustle play, she’ll go get the extra rebound out of her area. That’s not something we have a lot of this year. When she does come in, we know we can count on that from her.”
Auriemma didn’t fall into this predicament last minute. A confluence of factors — from injuries to misfires in recruiting — gradually led him to this unsettling spot.
“Circumstances tend to conspire to put you where you are,” he said. “So, in the whole recruiting process and the whole planning your team out, I don’t know that when we recruited a few of the guys that are in our second group, that we envisioned that early in their careers or at some point in their careers they’d be the sixth guy off the bench or the seventh guy off the bench. I don’t think that was how we approached it.
“I think we approached it as, we need to develop these kids, and if we do, great, they’re going to give us some depth. And if they don’t, then they’re going to struggle with playing time.”