December 30, 2004

Defending Champion UConn Women Struggling

STORRS, Conn. - Connecticut has lost games, its Top 10 ranking and a whole lot of swagger. The three-time reigning NCAA (news - web sites) women's basketball champions are just 6-3 — the first time they've dropped three games this early since 1992. The Huskies already were ranked 11th before losing by 16 points at home to Michigan State on Wednesday night.

They haven't been that low in the AP poll since 1994.

"What we've seen in UConn teams in the past is that attitude and that confidence. Right now, we have it sometimes, and sometimes we don't," junior guard Ann Strother said.

The setback against No. 10 Michigan State was UConn's worst home loss since 1992.

Coach Geno Auriemma saw it coming.

"I said early on this is not going to be good," Auriemma said. "We don't have any semblance of continuity."

The Huskies also don't have All-American Diana Taurasi anymore and it shows. Her bold leadership was a staple the last four years; she imposed her will on opponents and teammates. Auriemma tinkered with his lineups hoping that a leader or leaders would emerge. Instead, he's left at times with the gang that can't shoot straight.

"If you can't make open outside shots you can't win basketball games," Auriemma said. "Nobody can make a shot."

Opponents have focused on Strother, UConn's best returning shooter, and her teammates have failed to capitalize on their open looks. The Huskies are making 46 percent of their shots.

Junior Barbara Turner leads the team with 13.9 points a game, getting most of her offense in the paint.

Four of the last five games featured different starting lineups and 11 of 12 UConn players have started this season. Last year the starting five appeared in 35 of 36 games. With the graduation of Maria Conlon, the point guard position has been the biggest area of concern.

Freshman Mel Thomas had the last two starts at the point. Ketia Swanier, another freshman, also has taken her turn running the offense. The youngsters have big shoes to fill in a position played in the past by Sue Bird and Jennifer Rizzotti.

Auriemma mixed and matched all night Wednesday, but nothing worked against the Spartans.

"We don't have any more defenses we can play. We don't have any more offenses we could run," he said. "I was making stuff up on the fly."

Opponents are not fearing the five-time NCAA program like they did in the past, either. Unranked South Florida, which will join the Big East next year, battled the Huskies into the first overtime game in the 14-year history of Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 1. UConn escaped with a 75-65 win, eventually wearing the Bulls down in the extra period.

The Huskies have a tough stretch ahead. UConn hosts No. 8 Tennessee in a national championship game rematch Jan. 8. The Lady Vols (8-3) also are struggling and lost by 14 Wednesday night to No. 24 Rutgers.

Fourth-ranked Texas visits the Hartford Civic Center on Jan. 17.

It's anybody's guess, including Auriemma's, how the Huskies will respond.

"With this particular group, I don't think anything would surprise me," he said. "I have no idea what is in store."

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