STORRS — The best offensive clubs the UConn women’s basketball team has had for the last three decades are also among its best at the defensive end.
The Huskies’ “dirty little secret,” as veteran DePaul coach Doug Bruno has said for the past decade, is how well they defend.
But with the last two national Defensive Player of the Year winners — Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams — now in the WNBA, UConn has gone almost game to game in finding ways to keep opponents off balance and off the scoreboard. Against SMU on Wednesday, it was with a full-court trap.
“It’s really important for us to figure out if we can disrupt our opponent’s offense,” UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson said. “Even if we press just to take some time off the shot clock, that’s going to help us out overall. If we can get better at this and continue to use it against teams, it’s going to help us get in better positions on offense, as well.”
The third-ranked Huskies held SMU to 26.2 percent shooting from the floor and forced 24 turnovers, helping them to big advantages in fast-break points (21-6) and points off of turnovers (26-3).
Their 79-39 rout of the Mustangs in American Athletic Conference action before an announced crowd of 9,402 at Gampel Pavilion left them feeling good about their effort.
“It’s really satisfying and really rewarding, because it is really hard to play the defense that we are playing,” UConn forward Napheesa Collier said. “Being rewarded with a steal or a tip just shows that we are getting to them and that what we’re doing is working.”
Collier (22) and Samuelson (21) combined to outscore SMU on their own. But the seniors received help from Christyn Williams (12) and Megan Walker (11). Crystal Dangerfield didn’t hit double figures in points, but should have had it in assists if not for a blown layup each by the seniors. The junior finished with eight assists and just one turnover and had the Huskies on the run.
Twenty-six of UConn’s 31 baskets had assists attached to them.
“We play off of that type of energy, and it really gets our whole team going when we can play that aggressively,” Samuelson said. “It’s something we’ve been working on, and these past two days we really emphasized it.
“We were just getting out there in transition. We were emphasizing running the lane and trying to get layups. So when we got the ball off a steal or a rebound we pushed as much as we could.”
UConn (17-1 overall, 6-0 AAC) is second in the league to Central Florida in scoring defense (53.2) and first in field-goal percentage defense (33.2).
In its best win of the season, at Notre Dame on Dec. 2, it held the Irish to just 71 points. Even in its loss at Baylor, the Bears managed just 68 points.
SMU (7-12, 1-5) isn’t Notre Dame and/or Baylor and not even a top 100 team. But maybe the Huskies found another thing that they can add to their arsenal heading into February and March.
“We’re trying to get ourselves some easy buckets and try to get the game going a little quicker,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We want to create as many possessions as we can. I thought it worked out pretty well.
“I don’t know that it’s something you can do for 40 minutes every single game against every single team, but I think there is a time and place for it. I thought we were pretty active in it and pretty aggressive in it.”
The only down note was SMU’s 48-37 advantage on the boards.
“One of our problems is that we are such a lousy rebounding team that I worry,” Auriemma said. “I said to our guys before the game started, ‘If we’re going to really get after these guys, the number one thing is we have to rebound the ball because they’re going to miss a lot of shots.’ I don’t know that we did a really good job rebounding, but that is the one area I really worry about. So we’ll keep working on it. Hopefully it will be something we can use along the way.”
UConn shares the AAC lead with UCF and the teams will have a showdown at the XL Center in Hartford on Sunday.