COLUMBUS, Ohio - The University of Connecticut women's basketball team has not dropped a season opener in 20 years, part of the reason it has not lost back-to-back games since March of 1993.
A year ago, the Huskies made their debut with a 46-game winning streak and after Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis buried 10 3-pointers on UC Davis it seemed like they had picked up where they had left off. But two days later they were beaten by Stanford in overtime and an emotional All-American Breanna Stewart stated they had to change to reach their goals.
That change didn't end after UConn won its final 37 games and its third straight national championship last April. The lessons learned continued into this preseason and the top-ranked Huskies plan to take those with them Monday when they visit No. 6 Ohio State at Value City Arena here.
"This year, since we started practice until now, has been very different than last year," UConn forward Morgan Tuck said. "Yes, we're doing the same drills and the same kinds of things in practice. But the way we're doing it is different. Last year it took us way longer to get to that point. And we're not exactly where we want to be yet because it's a long season. But at this time last year we weren't feeling as good as a team, as confident in each other, like we had each other's back at all times on the court, and that we were going to do the things that would help us win. I don't think we felt prepared. This year we've gone out and done what we needed to do in order to feel prepared.
"You'll be able to see just the way we move on the court. And you'll see it in the contributions that every player is giving. Last year at Stanford it was the Stewie Show. We'd throw it to Stewie and we would all just stand and watch her get triple-teamed. This year we've tried to make sure that everyone is involved right from the beginning. We don't want to have a loss to show people what they will need to bring to the team."
It's the first time in Huskies' history they are opening with a true road game against a top 10 opponent. Ohio State (0-1) already has a game under its belt, dropping an 88-80 decision at No. 2 South Carolina Friday night.
UConn coasted to exhibition wins over Division II Lubbock Christian and NAIA Vanguard. But the Huskies' real preparation for their first real test has been done in the Werth Champions Center the past five weeks.
And there were enough reminders that this is a new season with a new team.
"I think that we got a taste of it in our first exhibition game when we didn't come out the way that we wanted to," UConn All-American guard Moriah Jefferson said. "That was a wake-up call. The intensity level went up in practice. I think, now, that guys are doing what we need to. Now it's about going out and playing and not worrying about the crowd, the atmosphere … Go out and play the game the way we can play it."
The Huskies will be down three players - Saniya Chong, Natalie Butler, and De'Janae Boykin - due to injuries. But they do have their four returning starters with Stewart, Tuck, Jefferson, and Kia Nurse. Sophomore Gabby Williams, last season's American Athletic Conference co-Sixth Man Award winner, joins the first five with highly-touted freshmen Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier first off the bench.
"I think they are much more mature in some aspects," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "The practices we have had for the most part have been much more mature. There haven't been as many practices as we had last year at this time where you just shake your head and go, 'These guys don't know what they are in for.' Last year, going into a game without Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley, was a real shocker for them. They always had someone who would bail them out. They thought they could just roll in there with no problem.
"I think we're in a better frame of mind and better situated right now to play a game like this early in the season than we were last year for sure."
UConn and Ohio State last met two years ago, coach Kevin McGuff's first season with the Buckeyes, and the Huskies picked up a sloppy 70-49 win at the Hall of Fame Women's Challenge in Springfield, Massachusetts.
But McGuff has already brought in his kind of players including the leading scorer in the country a season ago, guard Kelsey Mitchell. Against South Carolina, Mitchell scored 36 with backcourt mate Ameryst Alston adding 23. If McGuff had his way, there would be 119 points scored in the first half today, not over 40 minutes.
"When I got here, No. 1 I wanted a different style of play," McGuff said. "We inherited some really great kids and I enjoyed coaching them, but I just wanted a little bit different style. We were fortunate enough in our first recruiting class to really add some players that could play that style. That was the first step. The second step was to continue to add players that could do that. Now in Year 3, I think we are kind of where I was hoping we could be. We're still a ways from being where I think we will be eventually. But we do have a team that can play fast and can really push the tempo."
The Buckeyes fell into a 15-point hole in the first six minutes against the Gamecocks but rallied to lead by as many as six in the third quarter before South Carolina rallied itself. Ohio State had 26 field goals but only three assists attached to them.
McGuff admits starting with the No. 2 and No. 1 teams in the polls wasn't the best idea he's had, but he wants to challenge his team. The Buckeyes also have a trip to South Bend to face No. 3 Notre Dame on Dec. 2.
Over 10,000 tickets have been sold, even though much of the attention here is focused on the national champion Ohio State football team and its bid to return to the four-team playoff.
"One of the things we have tried to work really hard on is to build something special here," McGuff said. "We need a big event in our building and, obviously, when Connecticut comes to town it's a huge deal. I think we're going to have an electric environment. It will be a really fun atmosphere for our players, for the Connecticut players, and it's something I think will be good for women's basketball."
It may be fun, but it's new for Samuelson and Collier, who admitted to being nervous during the exhibition games.
And Tuck knows they'll be nervous Monday.
"But you want to try to get the nerves out early," Tuck said. "One of the reasons that it's good to have a game like this right away is that you get used to playing in front of a crowd and playing in an intense environment. I want them to enjoy this. This is why they came to UConn for, to play in games like this."
They also came to win national championships. The start of the journey toward an unprecedented fourth consecutive NCAA title is about to begin.
"There's definitely a sense or urgency because we know that we have to come out strong and play a really good game," Jefferson said. "If we don't, we could lose. It's that simple. We have to be prepared and I think we've done a good job of getting ready."