Huskies dominance starts on the defensive end

Connecticut's Kiah Stokes (41) blocks a shot attempt by Prairie View A&M's LaReahn Washington (0), as Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson (31) defend, during the first half of a first-round game of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut's Kiah Stokes (41) blocks a shot attempt by Prairie View A&M's LaReahn Washington (0), as Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson (31) defend, during the first half of a first-round game of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut’s opponents spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to slow the Huskies’ offense. A bigger challenge may be finding a way to score on the nation’s top-ranked women’s team.

UConn (36-0) goes into Saturday’s regional semifinal against BYU (28-6) holding opponents to an average of 47 points a game. The next best defense, Presbyterian, gave up 53.5 this season.  The Huskies also are at the top of the list when it comes to shooting defense, with opponents making just 30.4 percent of their shots.

“Our philosophy has always been, if we play great defense we’re going to have a chance to win every single game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Then we’re going to let our offense dictate how much we’re going to win by.  If our offense is lousy that night, we’re not going to win by a lot, but our defense is going to make sure that we have a chance to win every single game that we play.”

In his first few seasons, he said, the Huskies were holding teams to 55 points a game, and losing 55-50. This season, they are scoring an average of more than 83 points, and winning games by an average of 36. The nation’s other undefeated team, Notre Dame, ranks second in that category, with an average margin of victory of just over 26 points.

“It’s easy, especially when a team is scoring at the clip that they are offensively, to be slow and sloppy and lazy on the defensive side of it,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said after losing by 26 to the Huskies in the American Athletic Conference tournament. “I think that Geno does a masterful job of encouraging his players to be as intense on the offensive side as they are on the defensive side or vice versa. But that’s what clearly makes a great team.”

Auriemma jokes that he has a way of making sure players give maximum effort. If a player isn’t committed to defense, he has several other former high-school All Americans on the bench who are ready to take their minutes.

But he also believes his team’s defensive numbers have been inflated a bit this season because of the lopsided scores. A lot of teams, he said, become unhinged while trying to match UConn basket for basket.

“When you’re down 15, there is a lot more pressure on you to make shots,” Auriemma said. “If it’s a three-point game, I don’t think that’s a lot of pressure because if you miss you are only down three.  If you are down 15 and you miss, then we go down and now you are down 18. Then you come down and you miss. With each time down that you miss the pressure mounts and it becomes harder to make shots.”

And because UConn is so good in transition, opponents often get just one shot each trip down the floor, conceding the rebound to get back on defense. UConn outrebounds opponents by about 10 boards each game. The Huskies also have won the turnover battle (614-428) by stealing the ball 344 times and blocking 293 shots, leading the nation at more than eight blocks a game.

“For us, everything starts on the defensive end,” said senior Stefanie Dolson, the AAC’s defensive player of the year. “We take so much pride in that. We try not to give up anything easy.”

Dolson (6-foot-5), Breanna Stewart (6-4) and Kiah Stokes (6-3) each averages more than two blocks a game.

“They’re a great back line and it’s really hard to penetrate their defense,” said Saint Joseph’s guard Natasha Cloud, whose team lost by 39 points to the Huskies in the second round. “So you’re depending on the outside shot. If they are falling, they’re falling. If they’re not, you’re kind of out of luck.”

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