All-Americans Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams are calling out the reserves.
University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma used only six players in the top-ranked Huskies' 75-71 win at No. 9 Texas Monday night. Guards Crystal Dangerfield and Kia Nurse went the full 40 minutes, while Samuelson and Williams played 37 minutes each, and the only time Samuelson went out was when she took an elbow to the face from the Longhorns' Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau in the first quarter. All-American Napheesa Collier (26) and reserve Azura Stevens (20) rounded out the minutes.
"We need to get more than six players involved," Williams said. "You saw what happened to Lou. Pheesa fouled out. Those things could happen again. So we need more than six guys to contribute."
The bench should get its chance Thursday night when UConn returns to American Athletic Conference play against visiting Tulsa at Gampel Pavilion (SNY, 7 p.m.).
The win Monday night was the second time this season that the Huskies (16-0 overall, 5-0 AAC) have come back from a double-digit deficit, and also the second time that Auriemma has used only six players. The first time was at UCLA on Nov. 21 when Samuelson was out with a sprained left foot and freshman Megan Walker was the only reserve to get in on the action.
While Samuelson is the type that if she's breathing then she wants to be on the court, the Huntington Beach, California, native knows six is not enough if UConn wants to be at its best when it gets to the late portions of the NCAA tournament.
"We're trying to find someone that can step up and play big minutes for us," Samuelson said. "I know we have people that are capable of it. They have to bear down and show it because they could be real crucial for us later in the year. But they have to show it every single day in practice. If we get that next person, or next two, to step up, it will help a lot."
Nurse leads the Huskies in minutes per game (33.1) followed by Dangerfield (32.1), Collier (29.3), Samuelson (28.7), Williams (27.3), and Stevens (22.6). Walker is still averaging 15.6 minutes per game but has not seen meaningful action since battling the flu a month ago. No one else is in double figures.
Auriemma admitted Monday night that the starters "play too many minutes" and "it's not their fault." He said he would "find a way to rectify that." The Huskies took Tuesday off, which was also the first day of spring semester classes, and returned to the Werth Champions Center for practice Wednesday.
"There's a reason why they play a lot of minutes," Auriemma said. "People have this perception that coaches love a short bench. I don't know any coach that likes to go into any game feeling like they don't have a lot of options. I can't manufacture any solution. That solution has to come from our players getting better. Our younger players have to get better, and time is of the essence right now. You can say all you want about all the reasons. But I'm patient up to a point, and my patience has about run out.
"My feeling is if this is the way it's going to be for the rest of the season, then that's the way that it's going to be for the rest of the season. If these guys want to change that, then they have an opportunity every day to come here and change that."
Auriemma had actually been complimentary to the back end of his bench for their play against East Carolina, South Florida, Central Florida, and Houston.
But, to be fair, while their time on the court is usually limited to the fourth quarter, the group of five has combined for two points before the fourth quarter this season -- a Kyla Irwin layup late in the third quarter at Nevada on Nov. 28.
"I don't want to hear how a kid looks against a really bad team in the last five minutes of a game," Auriemma said. "That means nothing to me. I want to see how they look when we are practicing here against really, really good players. Once that look starts to change, then I hope soon that our depth will change.
"That is the key to everything isn't it, being able to do it so that it is not a fluke? You saw the game at Texas. We had guys who were All-Americans look overwhelmed out there. We had guys that were first-team All-Americans that struggled. So, I'm going to put in guys that struggle in practice to get something right two days in a row? It just doesn't make any sense. I mean maybe other coaches do that, but that's not where I come from. Am I holding out hope? I'm always holding out hope. Absolutely. Every day I hold out hope. Hopefully, as I said, we will be able to do something about it starting tomorrow night."
One move Auriemma did make with his bench Monday night came at the beginning of the third quarter when he inserted Stevens in place of Collier. Part of the reason was that Stevens, at 6-foot-6, was a better match against the Longhorns' size but the bigger part was Collier was struggling. The junior's only points of the first half came on a layup with two seconds to go that gave UConn a 39-38 lead.
Collier finished with seven points and fouled out with 2:42 left. It was the first time since the two games at the 2016 Final Four that she's scored in single figures in back-to-back games after scoring nine points at Houston Saturday. Collier was in single figures once (at LSU) in 37 games as a sophomore.
"I thought Texas was going to have a really, really difficult time handling Azura down low," Auriemma said. "I don't think it was going to change anything on the defensive end, but I thought on the offensive end they were going to have a really difficult time handling her, and as a matter of fact that is exactly what happened.
"Pheesa has been struggling, struggling with a lot of things and not just with that was happening in the Texas game. I'm not worried about where Pheesa is going to be, but the other night she didn't have it. So we went to who I think is the best player in the country coming off the bench. If you have somebody like that, why not use her? Going back to our last loss, we didn't have anybody like that coming off the bench. We certainly could have used somebody, because not everybody is going to play great every night."
Tulsa (8-10, 2-3) doesn't have the pieces to give UConn the challenge that Texas did. The Golden Hurricane have lost to AAC rivals Memphis and East Carolina this season. UConn beat that duo by an average of 54.5 points. Sophomore Shug Dickson, whose play a season ago earned her a spot on the AAC all-freshman team and an invitation to USA Basketball's U-19 national team trials, is Tulsa's top player and scorer.
Samuelson's left eye is still swollen -- "When we got home, she couldn't see straight ahead. She could only see when she looked down," Auriemma said. -- but she did take part in some of Wednesday's workout and should be good to go against Tulsa.