UConn basketball: Crystal Dangerfield's evolution sparks Huskies
It was a game seemingly made for Crystal Dangerfield's skill set. High energy, fast pace, lots of shooting and lots of offense.
"Like a track meet," Dangerfield said after UConn's 103-69 victory over DePaul Friday night at Wintrust Arena.
Yet it was the nuances of Dangerfield's game that distinguished her in UConn's eighth win of the season. Yes, she was active on defense and she dictated the pace with her speed and ball-handling on offense.
ICYMI: Highlights from our win against DePaul last night! pic.twitter.com/krZAQJNcPQ— UConn Women's Hoops (@UConnWBB) December 9, 2017
But consider her output: 18 points on 6 of 7 shooting from 3-point range and nine assists as UConn got double-figure scoring from six players.
When DePaul pressed, UConn broke it with an ability to find an open player and dribble through traffic. And it was often Dangerfield with her hands on the wheel.
"There may not be anyone more critical to what we're trying to do than Crystal is right now," coach Geno Auriemma said.
That's the same coach who spent last season nudging the freshman Dangerfield as she struggled to find her place on a team that didn't lose a game until the Final Four. In that national semifinal overtime loss to Mississippi State, Dangerfield played just 17 minutes.
Auriemma has said he didn't trust her enough to play her on the big stage in Dallas. Just over eight months later, he won't take her off the court. She's too important.
"She makes shots," Auriemma said. "Right now, Crystal and Kia [Nurse] and [Katie Lou Samuelson], they makes shots. That's tough for teams to deal with. She sees so much. She sees things and she has a great feel for the game and her instincts are good. So when the floor opens up like that and she can have a lot of open space to work with, she's pretty dangerous."
Dangerfield made 10 of her first 12 3-point attempts this season. She was 7-for-24 over her next five games, prompting some extra time in the gym.
"I felt like I needed to be better," she said.
And she was against DePaul. But she also controlled the game and never let the Blue Demons pull UConn into an out-of-control tempo.
Her obvious talent was on display, but she also showed poise and maturity. That's the player UConn expected when Dangerfield arrived from Tennessee last year.
This year, she has transformed her game.
"Not just confidence ... something inside that says, I want to be able to play, I want to be able to be counted on, I want to be able to do things on the floor," Auriemma said. "Whether things are going good or not going good. Last year, everything was conditional for Crystal. If I'm feeling good, I'm going to play well. If I'm not feeling good, I'm not going to play well. If I'm not tired, I'm going to play well. If I get tired, I'm not playing well. It's almost like you could predict it.
"But she's grown up a little bit and she's putting it all together. Am I surprised that she's playing at this level? Nah, not really. I was surprised it didn't happen a little bit more last year. I was disappointed for her last year that it didn't happen. ... Maybe because it [didn't] happen last year, she's accelerated that. But she's really good."
Dangerfield is averaging 14.3 points and leads the team in minutes per game (33.2). Her evolution has a player has perhaps been the most compelling story of this season, given her struggles last season.
"Freshman year, you're trying to fit in," Dangerfield said. "You're trying to figure out what your role is. I think I've done a better job of figuring out what that is. And that's distributing the ball and making open shots. I think I did that [Friday]."
Other takeaways from Friday's win:
On The Cusp Of History
The victory was the 999th in the career of Auriemma and his associate, Chris Daily. UConn's next game is Dec. 19 against Oklahoma at Mohegan Sun Arena, when Auriemma bids for win No. 1,000.
It was a win over a familiar face that left Auriemma one short of a milestone. DePaul coach Doug Bruno assisted Auriemma on the Olympic teams and is a friend. Bruno spoke affectionately about Auriemma after the same, praising him for notching so many wins and producing so many great players.
Dangerfield's nine assists led the Huskies, who had 34 assists in the game. Gabby Williams had seven, Napheesa Collier five, and Samuelson and Nurse four each.
UConn did an impressive job of moving the ball and finding the open player as the Huskies worked through the DePaul press. It's part basketball smarts and part skill, as the Huskies have a roster of players capable of handling the ball and tossing a pass.
"It's really, really good when your scorers are also good passers," Auriemma said. "For the most part, we pass the ball pretty well."
Healthy At Last
The big news Friday was the return of Samuelson, who twisted her ankle in the fourth quarter Sunday against Notre Dame after missing four games with a foot injury. Also, Williams was back after sitting with a migraine in the second half against Notre Dame.
With the full lineup available, the Huskies showed just how good they can be.
But there was another significant development in the final four minutes. Batouly Camara, who has been out with a knee injury, saw her first action in a UConn uniform. Camara, a sophomore, transferred from Kentucky and sat out last season. In October, she hurt her knee and has been unable to play.
Wearing a brace, she has been practicing and participating in pregame activity. Auriemma said he was looking for an opportunity to play her and Friday's game presented one, as she entered with the bench players late and had three rebounds.
Camara now has 10 days to prepare for the next game as she works herself into game-shape. She is a high-energy player capable of rebounding and playing defense, potentially adding another element to the UConn bench.
With Samuelson out, Azura Stevens seemed to find her footing in the UConn system. She was back on the bench at the start of Friday's game and played 21 minutes.
But she did not regress as she left the starting lineup. Stevens had 16 points and nine rebounds, converting 7 of 9 shots.
Most encouraging? She had four blocks and was a presence on the defensive end throughout the game, using her long arms and 6-foot-6 frame to disrupt DePaul near the basket.
If Stevens continues to develop as a shot-blocker and rim protector, UConn's defense might be impenetrable.
This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.