Mechelle Voepel, 678d

Facing (and losing to) UConn still has its rewards

Women's College Basketball, Connecticut Huskies, Kansas State Wildcats

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma thinks more and more opposing coaches are getting it: The reward of facing the Huskies really is far greater than the risk. If they beat you, no big surprise, right? They've now won 84 games in a row, and are seven short of breaking their own record.

If you beat them, of course, you're the talk of the sport. But it doesn't take defeating the Huskies to gain something from the matchup. So, if you have the chance to schedule UConn, why not?

That's the way Kansas State looked at it, and Sunday's 75-58 UConn victory drew 12,528 fans, which is just the Wildcats' third sellout in the past decade. The game was nationally televised. And K-State's players got the chance to face the best of the best, and see how they stack up. That will come in handy for Big 12 play.

"I definitely had jitters; I never had the opportunity to play in front of so many people," Kansas State junior guard Karyla Middlebook said. "But I don't use that as an excuse for the two early turnovers that I had. We have to be able to turn those jitters into positive energy for the team."

In contrast, the environment at Bramlage Coliseum was just another advantage for No. 1 UConn, as if the Huskies didn't have enough of those. They are unaffected by big crowds cheering for or against them. It's simply what they're used to.

This is a young UConn team, depending so much on super sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, but you get "old" quickly when you play for the Huskies. Well, let's rephrase that; you get "mature" quickly, or you don't play.

Collier, who is from O'Fallon, Missouri -- about a five-hour drive from Kansas State -- had several friends and family members present for another of her stat-stuffing games. Despite dealing with some neck spasms, she had 22 points, eight rebounds, four assists, six steals and five blocked shots. Oh, and she shot 10 of 15 from the field. (Good grief, imagine the game she could have had without neck spasms).

Samuelson led the way scoring-wise with 26 points. Auriemma said there's just a feeling the Huskies currently have whenever Samuelson or Collier gets the ball: Something good is about to happen.

True, there isn't much depth right now for UConn, and that was even more the case Sunday with senior Saniya Chong out with concussion-like symptoms after getting hurt in Wednesday's victory at Notre Dame. She didn't make the trip to Kansas State, and the only bench player who got significant minutes was center Natalie Butler with 16.

Yet the UConn starting five more than got the job done: Kia Nurse had 13 points and five assists, and Gabby Williams led the way on the boards with 10, adding six points. The Huskies led 25-8 after one quarter, during which they had a 17-0 run. The Wildcats stayed relatively close to the Huskies for the rest of the game, but they never could completely climb out of the hole they fell into at the start.

"There were a lot of positives out of today," Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie said. "The last three quarters, the way we competed, was much, much better."

Mittie is in his third season at Kansas State after 15 years at TCU in which the Horned Frogs went to the NCAA tournament nine times. He took the Wildcats to the NCAA second round last year.

Kansas State has had its peaks as a program -- none higher than during the period when All-Americans Nicole Ohlde and Kendra Wecker played together from 2001-04, when the Wildcats had seven sellouts, plus 10 other home crowds of 10,000 or more. But this was the first sellout in Mittie's tenure, and it's why he came to K-State: because it's a place he believes he can win and have a team that the community cares about.

Breanna Lewis led the way for the Wildcats with 18 points, seven rebounds, four blocked shots and four steals. This game was good for her individually, in terms of boosting her stock for the WNBA draft. The 6-foot-5 senior center impressed Auriemma with how much she had improved from a year ago, when the Wildcats played UConn at Hartford and lost by 40 points.

Kansas State opens its Big 12 season at No. 3 Baylor on Dec. 29, followed by No. 13 West Virginia at home, and then No. 19 Oklahoma on the road. Facing UConn helps prepare the Wildcats for a weeklong stretch like that.

Meanwhile, this all might seem like a very familiar script for UConn: Even when the Huskies face challenges such as not having a lot of players to sub in, you can hardly tell anything is difficult for them. Yet Auriemma said that's not accurate. The Huskies have won their four games in December by an average of 22.8 points -- three were against Top 25 teams; and while the Wildcats weren't ranked, they were previously unbeaten -- but Auriemma insists that it's harder than it looks.

"This isn't like last year or the year before, where we were convinced that there was no way we could lose," he said. "We knew that, and so did the teams we played against. All we had to do is go out and play our game.

"I don't think any of us thought going in that any of this was going to be automatic or easy. And it hasn't been easy, given our limited roster and how little experience we have in these moments. With individuals and us as a team, I couldn't be happier to be where we are right now."

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