In order to beat the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, you have to play them. Central Florida gets to do it as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
"Every time we play them, I think our team understands them more," UCF second-year coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said following the Knights' 55-37 loss to the Huskies at CFE Arena in Orlando Wednesday night.
AAC newcomer Wichita State will get its first experience against No. 1 UConn Saturdaywhen the Huskies open a three-game homestand against the Shockers at the XL Center in Hartford (SNY, 1 p.m.). UConn has won 86 consecutive games against first-time opponents dating back to a loss to Georgia at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 15, 1996.
"It's always fun to play against someone you've never seen before, someone that's never seen us before," UConn All-American Gabby Williams said. "I'm excited for it and we'll look forward to it."
The Huskies (23-0 overall, 11-0 AAC) lead the AAC race by two games over South Florida with five to go and have won 75 straight home games. It's also a tournament-like weekend for them as they'll play again Monday against No. 4 Louisville at Gampel Pavilion.
UConn didn't have it easy at UCF, though the outcome was never in doubt after the first quarter. But coach Geno Auriemma hopes the grind-it-out win will have benefits in the postseason when a win is just a win.
"Like we said in the locker room before the game," Auriemma said, "one of the reasons you play in the regular season is to try to experience and see as many different styles of play as you can so when the tournament comes in March, you've pretty much dealt with a variety of things. Playing a team like UCF, you get something a little bit different. They're not going to play man-to-man, they're just going to sit in that zone and sit there and sit there and it doesn't matter what the score is, they're not going to change. They want to make the game in the 50s.
"We were on our way to getting 80 and something happened along the way. You have to be able to experience every type of game that you can."
UConn led 21-4 after one quarter, 37-12 at halftime, and 48-20 going to the fourth quarter before UCF closed on a 13-2 run over the final six minutes to account for the final score. The Huskies had just two fast-break points and were outscored 19-16 in points off of turnovers, a category that they dominate when they are at their best.
With point guard Crystal Dangerfield sitting out for a second straight game due to shin splints in her left leg, guards Kia Nurse and Katie Lou Samuelson saw extended minutes. Samuelson did not come out until 2:12 remained while Nurse was removed for the first and only time with 1:43 to go.
"I think we got a little bit tired," Auriemma said. "UCF makes the game where you have to guard them for a long time. They hold the ball and they're really patient. There's not going to be a lot of possessions. I thought our defense was great in the first three quarters. We did a lot of really good things. But without Crystal we're not the same offensive team. We've got one less guard and we couldn't give them the breather they needed. We got a little tired. They're not going to stop playing, to their credit. They played hard."
Samuelson finished with 19 points, six rebounds, and five assists and the All-American was the only player in the game to make a 3-pointer, going 4-for-9 from behind the arc. Nurse, the nation's leader in 3-point percentage, was 0-for-3 while UCF finished 0-for-11.
UConn shot 57.1 percent (8-for-14) from the floor in the first quarter but was at just 32.3 percent (10-for-31) the rest of the way.
"When you're playing a team like UCF you have to be able to make a lot of perimeter jump shots," Auriemma said. "Otherwise, you won't be able to get them away from the lane as much as you'd like to. Without Crystal, that was one less shooter out there. So they were able to pack it in a little more."
The Huskies hope Dangerfield will return to the lineup Saturday.
Wichita State (10-15, 5-6) is in its first season in the AAC after the school ended a 72-year relationship with the Missouri Valley Conference last spring. The Shockers have never beaten a top-10 team. Their best win this season was over USF in Wichita on Jan. 21, which was part of a four-game winning streak. But since that run they've lost to East Carolina, Houston, and Cincinnati.
Senior forward Rangie Bessard, an all-MVC selection a year ago, is Wichita State's leading scorer and rebounder. Senior guard Diamond Lockhart also averages in double figures. Saturday's game is the only meeting between the Huskies and Shockers during the regular season. UConn will make its first trip to Wichita next year.
UConn's Williams was named Thursday as one of 10 finalists for the women's Senior CLASS Award. To be eligible, student-athletes must be classified as NCAA Division I seniors and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.
The senior forward is averaging 10.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 2.6 steals per game for the Huskies. In 136 career games she has 1,417 points, 918 rebounds, 408 assists, and 277 steals.
The other finalists are Ariel Atkins (Texas), Lexie Brown (Duke), Tyra Buss (Indiana), Emily Clemens (Western Illinois), Rebecca Greenwell (Duke), Delaney Hodgins (Eastern Washington), Kaylee Jensen (Oklahoma State), Jackie Kemp (Saint Louis), and Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State). The winner will be announced at the Final Four.
Azura Stevens was one of seven players added to the 2018 Wade Watch list. The redshirt junior forward is averaging 14.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.0 blocked shots. Williams, Nurse, Samuelson, and Napheesa Collier were on the 25-player preseason list. Other players added were Texas' Atkins, Loryn Goodwin (Oklahoma State), Ruthy Hebard (Oregon), Teaira McCowan (Mississippi State), Jaime Nared (Tennessee), and Tyler Scaife (Rutgers). The winner will be announced at the Final Four.
UConn Class of 2018 signees Christyn Williams (5-11 guard, Little Rock, Arkansas) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (6-4 forward/center, Winder, Georgia) are among 10 semifinalists for the 2018 Naismith Trophy as the high school Player of the Year.
Twenty-two players -- including former UConn stars Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Stefanie Dolson, Tiffany Hayes, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, and Morgan Tuck -- are in Columbia, South Carolina, for a USA Basketball national team weekend training camp that began Friday.
South Carolina's Dawn Staley will coach Team USA at the 2018 FIBA World Cup in Spain and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. She was an assistant to Auriemma on the 2014 world championships team and 2016 Olympic team that won gold. She also won three gold medals as a player.
"The one thing you learn when you coach the Olympic team is that no one can really give you advice," Auriemma said. "It's something you have to experience for yourself. For Dawn, having played and coached at the Olympics, it might come a little bit easier for her than it did for me in my first go-around. But she has the respect of the players and she knows the deal and she knows what the routine is.
"The camp will help a lot. She'll do a great job. The last I heard, Diana and Sue were going to play so automatically they have a chance to win."
Collier and Samuelson are part of the national team pool but are in Storrs with the Huskies. Former UConn standout Breanna Stewart is also not at camp as her season in China continues.
Team USA will be part of Group D in pool play for the 2018 FIBA World Cup along with China, Latvia, and Senegal. Canada, with Nurse, will be in Group A with France, Greece, and South Korea.