COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With three returning All-Americans, a four-year starter, a dynamic young point guard, and talented newcomers, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team has the pieces to win a national championship.
For 20 minutes against No. 10 Stanford, the Huskies looked the part as they built an insurmountable 35-point lead. It was so insurmountable that they were never threatened in the second half though their play was quite forgettable.
Great teams, says All-American Gabby Williams, play 40 minutes every game. Top-ranked UConn showed it has the potential to get there in its 78-53 season-opening rout of the Cardinal at the Countdown to Columbus event at Nationwide Arena Sunday. But there's plenty of work to do if the Huskies hope to be back here for the final weekend of the season.
"We didn't start off the second half like we should have and it set a tone," UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson said. "Next game, we'll focus on that. Last year we had a lot of stretches like that so we want to fix that as soon as possible and get to where we're playing like we did the first half the whole game."
After an early exchange of baskets, sophomore Crystal Dangerfield led a spurt of 14 unanswered points with two 3-pointers and a steal and layup for an 18-4 lead. Then Samuelson displayed her offensive versatility with 15 second-quarter points. The Huskies closed the period on a 21-2 run for a 49-14 bulge.
But while Samuelson and Dangerfield were the offensive sparks, it was a the team effort at the defensive end that broke it wide open. UConn had a 24-0 advantage in points off of turnovers in the decisive first half when the Cardinal also shot just 16.1 percent. For long stretches, Stanford (0-2) struggled to complete consecutive passes as Williams, the reigning national Defensive Player of the Year, established a pace of play Stanford could not keep up with it.
"Our best offense is when we're playing defense like that," Samuelson said. "In the third quarter, our defense wasn't good so it was hard to get in our offense."
Stanford won the third quarter by one point and the fourth quarter by nine. Later in the season, coach Geno Auriemma would have been upset by the turn of events. But he knows it's November and the letdown will give him something to get on his team about when it returns to practice to get for Friday's home opener against No. 20 California-Berkeley at Gampel Pavilion (SNY, 7 p.m.).
"I thought our defense in the first half was really, really, really good," Auriemma said. "I don't know if we could have played that much better defensively. The effort and execution was really, really good and it led to a lot of stuff at the other end. That's kind of who we are. We try to create stuff off of our defense and go from there. The second half was not worth mentioning.
"Typical young people, immaturity. We changed our defense up a little bit and I must not have explained it properly because they must have thought, 'Coach said play no defense.' I've got to change my wording next time. But it as the first game and I thought we were a little tired. We had a tough week of practice. We'll fix that."
Dangerfield's strong offseason and preseason continued into the regular season as she had career highs in points (24), rebounds (6), and steals (4). The three assists to no turnovers in a team-high 34 minutes was another positive.
Auriemma has talked for decades about the importance of players raising their level of play between their freshman and sophomore years. Dangerfield showed again she's ready to take that leap.
"Mostly it's just her mindset," Auriemma said. "I don't think she was ready for college basketball last year mentally or physically. She wasn't in really good shape. She didn't know how to push beyond having little things bother her. And she let herself get frustrated when she couldn't do what she wanted to. Her mindset and whole demeanor is different. She always had the talent. That's never been in question. Now she's confident to do it."
"And she has to play a lot and I wasn't willing to do that last year. I don't believe in playing freshmen a lot when they don't do the things that I know they can. Then there's no coaching them after that."
Samuelson scored 19 of her 21 points in the first half. She was 7-for-8 at the foul line as her aggressiveness was rewarded with foul calls. Her two 3-pointers did get her to 199 for her career.
"She got 21 and only two buckets from the 3-point line," Auriemma said. "It's a big change from freshman year when if she had 21, it would have been seven threes. She likes this feeling of being able to get to the basket and get to the foul line. It's something we've stressed, something that she's embraced. We know people are going to be physical with her and she's just a much more mature player right now."
Williams stuffed the stat sheet (11 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals) as she did most every night a season ago. Azura Stevens came off the bench in her UConn regular season debut and had eight points, eight rebounds, and three blocked shots, earning praise for her willingness to battle in the lane.
But they could be better. All-American Napheesa Collier got into foul trouble and had just eight points while senior Kia Nurse, who shot the ball so well during the exhibition games, was just 1-for-8 from the floor for four points.
UConn remained No. 1 in the Associated Poll released Monday. The Huskies were followed by Texas, Baylor, South Carolina, and Louisville. Stanford dropped four spots following its losses to Ohio State and UConn. South Florida was the only other American Athletic Conference team in the poll as the Bulls moved up one to No. 22.