Why Geno Auriemma gave UConn women’s basketball players two days off entering regular season home stretch

STORRS — The UConn women’s basketball team sacrificed its Big East bye date to fly to No. 1 South Carolina for an 83-65 loss on Feb. 11, so coach Geno Auriemma made sure his team made the most of a five-day break this week with just three games left in the regular season.

The No. 15 Huskies (23-5, 15-0 Big East) took Tuesday and Wednesday completely off, and Auriemma specifically told players they should stay out of the gym during the short break before they face DePaul (12-16, 4-11) on Sunday (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

While going days without practice can be a double-edged sword, Auriemma said he felt it was worth the risk at this point in part because of the team’s personnel limitations entering the grueling tournament schedules of March.

“When you give your team two days off, it could go either way. It could be really, really good, or sometimes it takes time to get back into the flow of things,” Auriemma said.

“When I was at (Virginia), coach (Terry) Holland never gave his team two days off, and I asked him one time why. He said, ‘Because they’re gonna realize what they’re missing and they’re not going to want to come back’ … But it’s a long season, and I think every team is probably trying to figure it out at this time of year.”

Auriemma’s instructions also didn’t stop the players from sneaking in time on the court. Freshman Ashlynn Shade said it felt strange to have so much time available after UConn played four games in eight days last week, and she finally couldn’t help herself and snuck into the gym at the end of her second day off.

“I definitely felt more energized coming back. It felt nice, but I was like kind of itching to get back to practice,” Shade said with a smile.

“Coach wanted us to stay away from the gym a little bit so we could clear our minds and get a fresh start … (but) I did on Wednesday night. I was like, I think it’s been long enough.”

However, the Huskies still managed to utilize the time off to get caught up on everything from sleep to schoolwork. Freshman KK Arnold said she spent most of her spare time in bed, but multiple 8 a.m. classes kept Shade up bright and early even without basketball on the schedule.

Auriemma said it didn’t surprise him that his team couldn’t stay out of the gym, even for 48 hours.

“I’m sure they did. They can’t stay away,” Auriemma said, with a rueful shake of his head. “I just think sometimes you have to get out of the gym and get rid of the ball. After a while, the ball starts to feel stale …

Everybody needs to be able to just step away from it for a little bit. I’ve always thought that was a good thing that when you come back, the ball feels really good in your hands. We don’t have monitors on them, so we don’t know what they’re doing, but I hope they took advantage of it.”

UConn Huskies guard Ashlynn Shade (12) shoots over Providence Friars forward Olivia Olsen (31) in the second half at the XL Center, Hartford, January 10, 2024. Despite having some extra time off this week, she said she couldn't stay out of the gym. Photo by Cloe Poisson/Special to the Courant
UConn Huskies guard Ashlynn Shade (12) shoots over Providence Friars forward Olivia Olsen (31) in the second half at the XL Center, Hartford, January 10, 2024. Despite having some extra time off this week, she said she couldn’t stay out of the gym. Photo by Cloe Poisson/Special to the Courant

UConn’s freshmen felt a learning curve in adjusting to the physical and mental demands of college, especially Arnold and Shade after they stepped into starting roles in late November.

The rookie duo have started 22 games apiece since five season-ending injuries decimated the Huskies’ depth, and both are logging more than 29 minutes per game.

Shade is the Huskies’ third scoring option, averaging 11.4 points and shooting nearly 50% from the field, while Arnold is a consistent all-around contributor, averaging 8.8 points, 3.2 assists and a team-high 2.3 steals.

“Before I came here, I did not recover after anything in high school,” Shade joked.

“I was like, ‘Oh I’m done, I’ll go back home and eat some dinner and do some homework.’ Now I’m like, stretching, rolling, doing the contrast hot and cold tubs. I did the sauna today. I take advantage of all of it.”

The Huskies will have to lean on their freshmen even more in the postseason, even as they adapt to their first experiences with the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

Auriemma said there is no way to gauge their readiness for that environment until they’ve been in it, but he’s optimistic because of how much time his young players have already spent on the court this season.

“I’ve coached kids that were not any good until the postseason, and then others when the postseason comes, they get a little anxious,” Auriemma said. “But they certainly have played enough minutes.

They’ve certainly been through a lot of scenarios, and you would think that they’re good to go … Going into the postseason, I would like for us to be more consistent in each individual.

Right now, Aaliyah (Edwards) and Paige (Bueckers) are really carrying the load for us. When we were rolling … we had more people involved and contributing offensively, so I’d like to see us get back to that.”

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