UConn women’s basketball meeting at St. John’s final tune-up with South Carolina looming

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The No. 9 UConn women’s basketball team’s season so far has been defined by a revolving door of personnel and a necessity to adapt — and once they’ve started to figure things out, being forced to adapt again.

The Huskies played their first four games with a full roster (minus junior Aubrey Griffin) before getting hit with the injury/COVID bug. Sophomore Paige Bueckers has played just the first six games, freshman Azzi Fudd in the first four. Sophomore Nika Mühl missed three in December and once she returned, the team had three games before senior Christyn Williams went down due to COVID-19 protocols.

Two of UConn’s four losses this season — the ones to, at the time, unranked teams — came in games immediately following the losses of key pieces (Georgia Tech was the first game without Bueckers and Mühl, Oregon was the first game without Williams). The other two were against top-three teams in the country.

And so while Seton Hall may not be Oregon, whom the Huskies fell to by 13 Monday, Friday’s 71-38 win over the Pirates was a step in the right direction. Next up is St. John’s on Sunday and UConn has a chance to build on the progress made Friday when the Huskies take on the Red Storm, ninth in Big East standings. It’s the final tune-up before UConn plays at top-ranked South Carolina in Columbia Thursday.

Coach Geno Auriemma said this week that the team is shooting for Williams to return for the South Carolina game. Regardless of Williams’ status, the team will approach Sunday as an opportunity to work on chemistry and communication, which showed tremendous growth Friday compared to Monday.

“It’s been a challenge for us, especially with unpredictable circumstances, people out with injuries or protocol,” senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa said of the team’s communication. “We still need to work on [it] but it’s definitely gotten better. I think we were able to highlight that [Friday], just on defense really helping each other and covering up for each other when we could.”

Offensively the Huskies showed improvement in decision-making and ball and people movement, even though that didn’t result in a great shooting night. UConn shot 41% from the field and 20% on 3s, but had just six turnovers going into garbage time in the fourth quarter.

It would bode well for the Huskies if they can find their stroke on outside shots prior to departing for Columbia.

“It’s not a long-term strategy that we can play well, shoot the ball poorly, and keep winning games. That’s not going to happen. So at some point you have to make shots,” Auriemma said. “The St. John’s game, it’s going to be the same way. And next Thursday’s game is going to be the same way. You have to make shots. And the better offensive teams you play against, the more imperative it is that you make, because you’re not going to be able to stop them every time.

“You’ve still got to be able to put the ball in a basket. And sometimes it’s also a function of you need a shot to go in right now. It’s not how many you make, it’s when you make them.”

Here’s what else you need to know about the matchup:

Site: Carnesecca Arena

Time: 1 p.m.

Series: UConn leads, 44-17

Last meeting: No. 1 UConn 77, St. John’s 41, March 6, 2021, in Uncasville, Conn.

TV: SNY (Meghan Culmo, Allen Bestwick, Maria Marino)

Stream: In-market SNY viewers with access to the network can watch via the NBC Sports app: http://stream.nbcsports.com/rsn/sny. Out-of-market viewers can watch on the Fox Sports App or at https://www.foxsports.com/ as well as on the FOX Now app or at www.fox.com/sports. The games might not appear on those sites until right around tipoff.

Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network on 97.9 ESPN (Bob Joyce, Debbie Fiske)

St. John’s probable starters, sixth man:

Leilani Correa, G, 6-0, Jr.; Unique Drake, G, 5-7, Jr.; Kadaja Bailey, G, 6-0, Sr.; Danielle Patterson, G/F, 6-2, Gr.; Rayven Peeples, F, 6-3, Sr.; Danielle Cosgrove, F, 6-4, Sr.

UConn probable starters, sixth man:

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, F, 6-5, Sr.; Dorka Juhász, F, 6-5, Gr.; Evina Westbrook, G, 6-0, R-Sr.; Nika Mühl, G, 5-10, So.; Caroline Ducharme, G, 6-2, Fr.; Aaliyah Edwards, F, 6-3, So.

The matchup

UConn’s offense: Ducharme still leads UConn’s scoring effort since the Bueckers injury, averaging 15.5 points per game. Nelson-Ododa has been a steadying force down low and is coming off four straight games where she’s reached double figures in scoring.

UConn’s defense: The Huskies held Seton Hall’s Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Lauren Park-Lane to 2-for-19 shooting Friday. The unit will look to replicate that defensive effort in trying to slow down Correa, the Big East’s top scorer.

St. John’s offense: The Red Storm score 74.1 points per game, making them the second-highest scoring team in the Big East behind DePaul. They play fairly fast-paced and shoot 43.1% from the field, including 31.6% on the 25 3s they attempt per game. Aside from Correa (20.4 points per game), Bailey chips in 14.9 points per game.

St. John’s defense: On average, the Red Storm allow more points (74.7) than their offense scores, making for one of the worst scoring defenses in the league. Opponents have shot 43.2% against St. John’s including 33.3% on 3s. While Peeples leads the team with 11.5 boards per game, UConn should have the edge on the glass.

UConn keys: Can the Huskies put together another commendable defensive effort and contain Correa? Can they continue to limit self-inflicted wounds and come out in-sync offensively? Can they find more success from beyond the arc?

Players to watch: Nelson-Ododa has been a stalwart of consistency, while Juhász dedicated herself to improving on the offensive end after a disappointing outing against Oregon. Edwards, meanwhile, is still navigating some sophomore season struggles. Against St. John’s or in the near future, if this group can all get on the same page by staying strong inside and also hitting some outside shots more consistently, it would make the Huskies that much more balanced of a team.

About St. John’s coach: Joe Tartamella entered the season with a 170-115 record since arriving in Queens ahead of the 2012-13 season. The Red Storm are searching for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015-16.

St. John’s mascot: Johnny Thunderbird

Famous alumni: Actor Ray Abruzzo, basketball coach Lou Carnesecca, soccer player Rachel Daly

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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