Huskies motivated to always put on a show

Moriah Jefferson, who led all scorers with 15 points Monday, says she wants to play her best every night for fans old and new. Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- When the Connecticut women play on the road, there are always fans who hang around after the game in hopes of talking to the Huskies. Sometimes they are UConn supporters who live nearby. Other times, they are just general basketball fans. And there are also those who have just spent 40 minutes cheering vociferously against the Huskies but are still eager to meet them.

Certainly, that was the case on Monday, as No. 1 UConn beat Chattanooga 79-31 before 6,104 fans at McKenzie Arena. It was the first meeting between the programs.

"People usually want to take a picture, get an autograph and just say, 'Thank you for coming here to play,'" UConn senior Breanna Stewart said. "Not that I had anything to do with us coming here and playing. But I want to make sure I put on a good show for them. It's a big deal."

Stewart had 14 points and was one of four Huskies who scored in double figures. Gabby Williams also had 14, Morgan Tuck tallied 10 and Moriah Jefferson led UConn with 15.

"To me, they usually say, 'Oh, you're so fast!'" a smiling Jefferson said about what fans express to her. "Or they share UConn memories they have.

"Tonight, I talked to a guy who has an entire UConn room. He lives in Atlanta, and he has all these pictures of his stuff. Those are the type of people that you are playing for, and you want to give your best every night."

What was the most interesting item of memorabilia he had?

"Honestly, I loved the UConn ceiling fan," Jefferson said. "It had the blades with UConn stuff, and Jonathan [the Husky mascot] was on it. It was really cool."

Someone showing photos of his ceiling fan -- yep, that's a slice of life on the road for the top women's college basketball team in the nation.

If people ever wonder how the Huskies -- who have lost just once in their past 89 games -- stay motivated, they can look at the many effective ways coach Geno Auriemma and his assistants encourage the team to stay sharp. It's a team pride thing, of course, but it's also about recognizing the big picture and helping grow the game.

"Before the game, Coach was talking about embracing the opportunity to play in front of a lot of people who are cheering for you and against you," Stewart said. "They're just coming to watch good basketball. We wanted to make sure we were running our stuff and really disrupting them defensively."

The Huskies definitely did all of that. We've grown so accustomed to their passing excellence that it's just expected to see them having 23 assists on 31 baskets. Nine of the 10 Huskies who played on Monday had at least one assist.

"Every time we have the opportunity to play someplace for the first time ... it may inspire people to come back. I think that's a part of who we are and what we do, and we take that seriously for sure." Geno Auriemma

The root of all of that great passing, Auriemma says, comes from focusing on that talent -- or at least the willingness to develop it -- in recruits.

"I try not to recruit any players that don't want to pass," he said. "Because we surround good players with good passers, then everybody becomes a better passer. You don't want to be the only one who sticks out like a sore thumb. Like every time you're open, you get the ball, but then when someone else is open, they don't get it from you.

"And we work on it every day, a lot. It's something I think is a big part of basketball. It's what makes the game really pretty to watch."

Of course, what can be ugly about UConn games is really not the Huskies' fault. The opponent's offense just dries up in the face of the Huskies' relentless, precise execution on defense. Such was the case on Monday. Though the Mocs stayed in the game during the first quarter, which ended 19-11, Chattanooga scored 12 points in the second quarter and trailed 37-23 at halftime.

Then ... the Huskies just turned off the spigot, and the Mocs could barely find a drop of offense the rest of the game.

"The fact that we held them to five in the third quarter and three in the fourth, that's huge," Stewart said of Chattanooga's eight total points in the second half. "We want to wear teams down, because we know we can last longer than them."

Auriemma acknowledged that he never sets out to hold opposing teams to a certain low score, but it's the product of how well his squad does its job. He and Chattanooga coach Jim Foster have been good friends for many years, dating back to when Auriemma worked for Foster at Saint Joseph's in the late 1970s. And Auriemma also remembers what it's like to face a Foster team that was much better than his UConn squad -- although that was a long time ago.

The Huskies lost to Foster's Vanderbilt team by 28 points in the 1992 NCAA tournament and again to the Commodores by 30 points in December 1992. That 1992-93 Vanderbilt team went on to the Final Four.

Auriemma said those 1992 memories actually crossed his mind during Monday's game.

"We couldn't get any offense going, and they were able to do whatever they wanted to do," Auriemma said. "I've been there, and it's not a fun place to be."

For many years now, that's something the Huskies have been doing to other teams. And even the fans who get annoyed watching UConn bulldoze their favorites can appreciate the level of play they're seeing from the Huskies.

"One of our writers who covers us used to kid us that when we went on the road, it was like the circus coming to town," Auriemma said. "Like people say, 'Let's go see what's going on with them,' and then maybe they keep coming back to watch the home team play. I hope that happens.

"Every time we have the opportunity to play someplace for the first time, I get a kick out of it when I see [6,000 or 7,000] or 8,000 people, or whatever the number might be. Because it may inspire people to come back. I think that's a part of who we are and what we do, and we take that seriously for sure."