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Geno Auriemma on Morgan Tuck: 'She's pretty special'

When top-ranked UConn beat No. 3 Notre Dame last week, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Morgan Tuck was "the difference in the game." AP Photo/Jessica Hill

STORRS, Conn. -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma can't just rain down compliments on one of his Huskies, can he? That would be really weird. He has to get little digs in somewhere. Keep a player on her toes.

But Morgan Tuck makes this difficult. The 6-foot-2 forward really understands basketball. She responds immediately to instruction with no need to be told twice. She doesn't have goofy or brain-cramp moments to give Auriemma quick openings to one-liners. She's perpetually even-keeled.

"Without question, on our team, Tuck is the easiest person to coach," Auriemma said. "Not that everybody else is hard. But Tuck is like another coach on the floor, in the locker room, on the bus, in the hotel, on the plane.

"Tuck's got it all figured out, she really does. Even last year, she should have been first-team All-American. She may have been the most important player on our team. Tuck's pretty special."

"She's nothing flashy or spectacular; she just does all the little things that help you win games. It's been like that since her first year here." UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Morgan Tuck

That, folks, is some big-time praise from a guy who has coached so many of the best players in the game. Of course, Auriemma did have one little needle, when first asked what Tuck was doing particularly well this year.

"Besides miss wide-open layups? She does that very well," Auriemma said last week before the Notre Dame game, the standard gleam in his eyes.

Then Tuck went out and scored 21 points -- second to Breanna Stewart's 28 -- 7 rebounds, 8 assists and just 1 turnover in the Huskies' 91-81 victory over the Irish on Saturday.

"I thought she hurt us; she was the difference in the game," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Tuck. "You expect Stewart is going to get what she got. But Morgan ... did everything she needed to do. She was probably the X factor for them. She really played well. I've always admired her game."

Tuck went 6 of 14 from the field and 9 of 13 from the line, which at least gave Auriemma a little material to work with. Then in Wednesday's 94-50 win at Colgate, Tuck pretty much closed that loophole, too, going 10 of 11 from the field for 20 points, plus had 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocked shots.

The redshirt junior out of Bolingbrook, Illinois, is averaging 15.1 points and 6.1 rebounds for the 7-0 Huskies, who will take on Florida State at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Friday (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET).

"The thing about Tuck," Auriemma said, "is that she's just good at everything that basketball players are supposed to be good at."

So what does Tuck think of all this glowing talk? It seems like it makes her a little nervous. Told that Auriemma said she had things figured out, Tuck looked for a second as if she was waiting for the punch line to come.

"I definitely don't feel that way, so it's good to hear him say it," she said. "I think what he means is knowing what to do on the court, to make reads. That's what I tried to improve on ... not getting flustered and making a weird play.

"I'm really frustrated on my finishing; that's not good at all. But mentally, I'm at a different level from last year. I think I have a better understanding of what coach wants us to do."

Last season, Tuck averaged 14.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, shot nearly 60 percent from the field and had 115 assists. Yet when she suggests she's at an even higher level now, she's right.

Stewart is the leading scorer and rebounder, the acknowledged superstar of UConn, and it's kind of hard to take your eyes off her on court. Then there's guard Moriah Jefferson, the spark plug who runs the offense so well and can defensively flummox fellow perimeter players. So how Tuck fits into the standard narrative about "UConn's multiple great players" is that she's the one perpetually overlooked and underappreciated, correct?

Except that's really not the case, either.

"I don't think so, not anymore," Auriemma said "People I talk to, that's one of the first things that they bring up; that they love Morgan Tuck. You talk to anybody who knows anything about basketball, they all know what the value is.

"Morgan's just somebody we can count on every day. She's nothing flashy or spectacular; she just does all the little things that help you win games. It's been like that since her first year here."

Tuck, though, describes her freshman self of 2012-13 as essentially clueless, asking then-junior center Stefanie Dolson questions "every two seconds."

"She was always very willing to answer and help me out as much as possible," Tuck said. "And I feel like I need to do the same now for the underclassmen.

"Stef made really good reads when she got the ball in the middle of the zone. She just automatically knew what to do; there wasn't a hesitation. I watched to see where I could make my reads, where I could go to set a screen or slip to the basket."

"Tuck's got it all figured out, she really does. Even last year, she should have been first-team All-American. She may have been the most important player on our team." UConn coach Geno Auriemma

The next season, though, knee problems that had lingered from her freshman year forced Tuck to have surgery and get redshirted, as she played just eight games. But she made the most of being sidelined, too.

"The one big thing I learned was how much what people do affects the team, from a leadership standpoint," Tuck said. "I think you notice it when you're playing, but when you sit there and watch it, you really see when someone gets subbed in and the tempo or feel of the game changes."

Tuck is, personality-wise, the most natural leader among the Huskies' veterans. She will say what has to be said -- but nothing that doesn't. She will emotionally keep her cool no matter the circumstances.

"She means everything," Jefferson said. "She's the calm, composed piece that we need on the floor, and she's always there for us."

This is Tuck's fourth year at UConn, so she would be eligible for the 2016 draft, just like Stewart and Jefferson. But she expects to be at UConn in 2016-17, too.

"My plan is to stay, definitely," Tuck said. "I know basketball isn't going to last forever, and I could get my master's in a year by being on scholarship. And that's looking really appealing.

"It allows me to be in that leadership role for another year, and get my game where I really want it to be. Being here, they make you better. They hold you very accountable and put you in the best position possible for the next step."

Good luck to Auriemma coming up with motivational barbs about Tuck for another year and a half. Sure, you know he'll find something -- but she really does have it figured out.