A short time after beating Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln last Wednesday night, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team went its separate ways to enjoy the Christmas holiday.
What kind of team coach Geno Auriemma welcomes Monday when the top-ranked Huskies get back together to begin preparations for Thursday's showdown at No. 4 Maryland remains to be seen.
UConn (11-0) has been impressive in running its winning streak to 86, four shy of its own NCAA record. Six of the victories are against ranked opponents and include double-figure wins over the two teams placed ahead of the Huskies in the preseason Associated Press poll, Baylor and Notre Dame.
But if Auriemma didn't receive the "happy pills" he hoped for as a Christmas present following the Dec. 19 win over Ohio State, he may have had a flashback to six years ago when another UConn team was on a record run.
The 2010-11 Huskies entered the season with a 78-game winning streak. While they had two-time reigning Wade Trophy winner Maya Moore, they had lost All-American Tina Charles, who had captured most of the 2010 Player of the Year honors, and veteran Kalana Greene, the NCAA's all-time leader in games played, to graduation. They were also without starting point guard Caroline Doty, who had suffered a season ending knee injury during the summer.
But with two freshmen (Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson) and a sophomore (Kelly Faris) in the starting lineup, UConn rallied for a one-point Game 2 win over Baylor and then tied and passed the UCLA men's mark of 88 straight wins by routing nationally-ranked Ohio State and Florida State in a three-day span before it went home for Christmas. When the Huskies returned from the break a week later, however, Auriemma admitted he didn't have the same team. UConn was not sharp in win No. 90 at Pacific and two days later its winning streak was snapped by Stanford at Maples Pavilion.
Six years later, the Hall of Fame coach wasn't about to ruin his Christmas over what he'll see when the Huskies return to practice.
"There's nothing you can do about it," Auriemma said. "The only thing that's different was I think that (2010-11) team was under a lot more stress. There was a lot more talk. There was a lot more attention being paid to that other stuff. But there's nothing you can do about it, absolutely nothing you can do about it. If there was something we could do, we could prevent any loss from happening again. It's not going to happen. That's why some teams play well some days and not so well on other days. You're not going to get the same team all of the time."
What Auriemma has had for the first 11 games is as good a team as anyone in the country.
Sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier have taken a huge jump from their freshman year and have emerged as All-America candidates. Samuelson is the second-leading scorer in the American Athletic Conference (20.6) and is the only player in the league to rank in the top 12 in field-goal percentage (11th at 47.9), 3-point percentage (first at 47.4), and free-throw percentage (seventh at 82.9). Collier is third in the AAC in scoring (19.6), eighth in rebounds (8.1), second in blocked shots (1.7), first in field-goal percentage (62.6), and ninth in free-throw percentage (81.8).
Juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams have been solid, and at times spectacular. Nurse, with the help of a career-best 33 points against DePaul on Dec. 1, is averaging 13.5 points and her 4.2 assists per game ranks fifth in the AAC. She is also third in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (43.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (plus-2.3). Williams is averaging a career best 10.4 points and leads the Huskies in rebounds, assists, and steals. Her 8.2 rebounds per game ranks seventh, her 4.6 assists per game ranks fourth, her 1.8 steals per game ranks third, and her assist-to-turnover ratio of plus-1.5 ranks fourth in the AAC.
Freshman Crystal Dangerfield, senior Saniya Chong, and junior Natalie Butler have also played their parts in keeping the winning streak alive.
After facing the unbeaten Terrapins, the Huskies open AAC play at Central Florida Sunday. Their only remaining non-league game is Feb. 13 against South Carolina at Gampel Pavilion.
Auriemma's wish for the break was for his team's Christmas to be merry.
"I just wanted them to enjoy the fact that we've done a lot," Auriemma said. "We've worked hard and we've accomplished a lot. They should be proud of themselves. And I can tell how much confidence they're gaining in themselves and in each other. I wanted them to reflect on it, come back, and let's not have to start all over."
AAC HONORS SAMUELSON
UConn's Samuelson was named the AAC Player of the Week Monday, the second time this season she has been so honored.
The Huntington Beach, California, native averaged 24.5 points in the Huskies' wins over No. 12 Ohio State and Nebraska. The league also recognized her on Nov. 21. She joins teammate Collier as the only two-time AAC Player of the Week this season.
Named to the AAC's weekly honor roll were Central Florida's Aliyah Gregory, Cincinnati's Bianca Quisenberry, South Florida's Maria Jespersen, Temple's Alliya Butts, and Tulane's Kolby Morgan.
Memphis guard Taylor Barnes was the AAC Freshman of the Week.
HUSKIES ON TOP AGAIN
UConn maintained its position atop the Associated Press poll for the fourth straight week. The Huskies received all 33 first-place votes for the third consecutive to out-distance Notre Dame (11-1), which beat out Baylor (11-1) for second by eight points.
The top 10 remained the same as UConn, Notre Dame, and Baylor were followed by Maryland (12-0), Mississippi State (13-0), South Carolina (10-1), Florida State (12-1), Louisville (12-2), Washington (12-1), and UCLA (9-2).
Ohio State (10-4) dropped two spots following its 82-63 loss to UConn at the XL Center in Hartford on Dec. 19. USF was the only other AAC team to receive votes as the Bulls (10-1) fell two places to 23rd following a loss to Long Beach State.
California was the only newcomer to the poll at No. 21 while Kansas State dropped put.