HARTFORD, Conn. -- Despite falling to its lowest ranking the AP Poll since 2007 this week, the No. 5 UConn women's basketball team insisted ahead of its game vs. the East Carolina Pirates that it didn't look or care about its ranking. But Wednesday night at XL Center, the Huskies played like they had something to prove.
UConn reached triple digits for the first time this season, smoking ECU 118-55, thanks to a total effort from its squad and Katie Lou Samuelson's game-high 31 points.
The senior star broke out of a six-game streak of shooting 50 percent or below by hitting 9 of 11 shots, going 2-for-2 from 3-point range and 11-for-13 from the line. Even more impressive, Samuelson did all that in just 20 minutes of work.
A good chunk of those points came via layups thanks to fastbreak chances and a porous ECU defense.
"The biggest things is getting myself involved in different ways, that's how any shooter can get out of a shooting slump," Samuelson said. "Just making sure every play you can do something."
Samuelson's effort certainly impressed her head coach.
"You have to be a basketball player, not a basketball shooter," Geno Auriemma said. "I think a lot of our guys played basketball, they didn't just stand around waiting for a shot. And Lou especially. She had 27 points in the first half and made two 3s. That's unheard of back in the day for her. It's a good sign."
Many of Samuelson's points came from point guard Crystal Dangerfield. The floor general set a career high with 12 assists while UConn as a team assisted on 35 of its 45 baskets. While Dangerfield has been one of the Huskies' best players all season, she's elevated her play over the last six games, averaging 16.5 points and 7.7 assists in that span. Auriemma attributes that success to Dangerfield mastering the intricacies of the position.
"She's starting to understand how valuable it is to get shots for her teammates in addition to whatever shots she can get," Auriemma said. "She's got to understand too that she can go and get more shots if she wants to. But these other guys need my help to get shots. And that's really sunk in now and she's doing a fabulous job of it. It's fun to watch her play like that. She's having fun."
Plus, Napheesa Collier went a perfect 10-for-10 en route to 21 points.
"It's like talking about the sun came up," Auriemma said of Collier's consistency. "I've said it to our whole team, I've said it a bunch of times and they know it. There's no more guarantee than what you get from Pheesa every day at practice and every night. No matter how many minutes she plays, no matter who we play, no matter who she's playing against, she just is at a different space than everybody else."
But it wasn't just the "Big Three" that contributed. Megan Walker quietly had 14 points and six boards. Christyn Williams snapped out of her mid-year freshman swoon with 15 points.
What was even more surprising, though, was the effort of the bench. The much-maligned reserve unit had its best game of the year, dropping a season-high 25 points.
"They all did their part, they all did a little something," Auriemma said. "Every once in awhile they surprise you."
"They did awesome tonight," Samuelson added. "Even people that came in in the first half did really good. There was no letdown when they came in."
Each player found different ways to contribute. Kyla Irwin scored a career-high nine points. Molly Bent drained a pair of 3s on her way to eight points and three assists. Mikayla Coombs brought down five rebounds, three of which came on the offensive glass. Batouly Camara grabbed four rebounds. And Olivia Nelson-Ododa did it all with six points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
It was by far UConn's most complete effort of the season.
"It's always good to have games like this where you feel everyone contributed and did something positive and you feel you can build off this," Samuelson said.
Wednesday night was a perfect example of what the Huskies need from their bench. They don't need any of them to be superstars; all they need are quality minutes to give the starters a breather. And that's exactly what the reserves gave.
But as promising as the performance was, different bench players have flashed at different times this season but haven't strung more than one good game. So Auriemma is going to temper his expectations.
"I was encouraged by what they did but I've been encouraged before," he said. "So we'll see what happens on Saturday."