Geno Says Nurse A Bigger Loss Than Many Realize; No. 23 Temple Visits UConn

STORRS — As the season began and so many roles were undefined, there was one sure thing in UConn's starting lineup. Kia Nurse was returning in the backcourt, fresh off a stint as a starter for Canada's Olympic team. The starting guard on two national champions, a player with a demonstrated track record over two seasons as a Husky, Nurse was a known thread in a lineup defined by uncertainty.

More than three months later, the No. 1 ranked Huskies (26-0) are moving toward the end of the season without Nurse. The junior is sidelined with a stress reaction in her right ankle and could miss the final three regular season games.


She didn't play Saturday at Tulane, the first game she missed in her college career. And she was missed, as UConn held on for a three-point victory.

On Wednesday, No. 23 Temple (21-5) visits the XL Center and UConn must contend with perhaps the best backcourt in the American Athletic Conference. Feyonda Fitzgerald (16.9 points), Donnaizha Fountain (14.7) and Alliya Butts (14.6) are each capable of scoring from anywhere on the court.


And without Nurse, the Huskies' perimeter defense is lacking.

"It's a big concern, really," Geno Auriemma said. "We probably couldn't be playing a worse team for us in our league. They may have the quickest, toughest guards to guard one-on-one of anybody in the league and they're as good as any guards in the country at getting their own shots. They have a lot of freedom to get shots."

The Temple offense revolves around the guards, so there's added pressure on UConn's guards.

"They have quick guards who can shoot or go to the basket," senior Saniya Chong said. "So it's going to be on us to stay down and get stops."

Nurse is UConn's best defensive guard. She also averages 12.8 points and leads UConn in three-point percentage (42.2 percent) and free-throw percentage (85.7 percent).

So she is missed at both ends of the court.

"When the season started, we had a kid who started on the Olympic team for Canada and she started for us for two years and nobody thought we were the best team in the country," Auriemma said. "Now, you take her out of the lineup and you look at our backcourt and you go, 'hmm.'

"Nobody had to tell us how important Kia is to what we do offensively and defensively. The sense of maturity that she brings for the most part and the experience that she brings and it's not like we're taking her out of the lineup and we're replacing her with another senior who's been around the program for four years. We're replacing her with a freshman."


Crystal Dangerfield is starting in Nurse's place. Dangerfield (1-for-7 shooting) had five points, one assists and two turnovers in 33 minutes against Tulane. She has also been inconsistent defensively.

Chong has been steady all season, but she made just 2-of-6 shots against Tulane and had two turnovers with two assists. Chong's defense has improved throughout the season, but Temple's guards will pose a problem.

Katie Lou Samuelson, who had 17 points against Tulane, will also be forced to guard on the perimeter.

"It's a challenge for them," Auriemma said. It's a challenge for Crystal, Saniya, Lou, all three of our guards, to play a lot of minutes and not get in foul trouble and to get a lot done. Tomorrow, Saturday, Monday … until Kia gets back, it's a big challenge for those three guys."

Said Chong, "Kia is pretty much our best defensive player out there. We struggled a little bit in our last game because we weren't getting stops and that's the role that she plays. We missed her."

Still, UConn held Tulane to 60 points and 23-of-64 (35.9 percent) shooting. But the Huskies weren't forcing turnovers at a high rate, so there weren't easy points in transition.


And with UConn missing shots, the 17-point third-quarter lead quickly evaporated against Tulane. Napheesa Collier scored 26 points, but she sat with four fouls for a long stretch in the second half.

"We shoot the ball well enough, usually, to mask whatever deficiencies are there," Auriemma said. "That's been the case since the Florida State game [to open the season]. We've generally shot the ball well enough, enough times, to hide whatever issues that we have. Saturday, those same things popped up but we didn't shoot the ball well enough. … When you don't make shots, every little things starts to show its head and gives you things you've got to address."

The challenge over the final three games of the regular season is to regain that scoring touch while somehow overcompensating for the loss of Nurse. Dangerfield will need to play with more consistency, especially since the Huskies have little depth under the best of circumstances.

Auriemma said Saturday and again Monday that it's surprising UConn isn't pushed to the brink more often. This team, unlike the past few years, has little margin for error and Saturday presented a perfect storm.

But it also may act a wake-up call. Expect UConn to shoot more efficiently against Temple, which moved into the Associated Press Top 25 this week for the first time in 11 years.

So don't expect anything different from UConn.


"If you're not careful," Auriemma said, "you go in and try to reinvent what you're doing and you end up screwing everything up."