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Mike Anthony | The Hartford Courant | February 24, 2018

UConn looking fine-tuned heading into March

  UConn looks increasingly fine-tuned, having won with authority against some of the nation's elite teams and breezed through the AAC schedule.

Geno Auriemma called junior Napheesa Collier a machine. He said she scores whenever she touches the ball.

So to be clear, he was praising Collier, UConn's junior forward, Wednesday night after the top-ranked Huskies' 44-point victory at Tulane.

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But Auriemma can't help himself. Nary a press conference goes by without a little sarcasm, a little criticism, a little something to help differentiate the dissection of one blowout victory from the next.

"I don't think Pheesa knows any of our plays," Auriemma said. "She just runs around. When she catches the ball she knows where the basket is. 'Pheesa, do you know plays?' 'No. I know where the basket is, though.'"

Minutes later, Collier laughed. She had made 9 of 11 shots.

"He said that today? Oh, my God!" she said. "He said that my freshman year."

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In the same press conference, Auriemma praised Azura Stevens, the 6-foot-6 junior forward. She had made 9 of 12 shots.

"Azura is part of the new wave of basketball players over 6-3, 6-4," he said. "I think Azura is indicative of what's going on...around the world today in basketball. When you get to 6-3, if you grow another inch, automatically your body is devoid of wanting any contact. So the kids that get to 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, it's like in their DNA -- they come to your school with like a certificate that says, 'I'm entitled to never be hit for the rest of my career in basketball, so let me float around, let me move all the time, catch it and do the stuff that looks really cool on the court.' Z can do all those things. We're trying to make her do stuff that she doesn't really think about, and it will get there. It will get there."

Stevens flashed the same type of smile Collier did.

What Auriemma says behind the closed doors of Gampel Pavilion and the Werth Champions Center -- what he actually says to players, not about them -- contains, presumably, the most important messages. There are public glimpses, however, of how blunt and creative and needling he can be.

The Huskies take a ribbing and keep on ticking.

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"This is kind of what I came here for," said Stevens, who transferred to UConn from Duke. "I knew he was going to be a coach like this. I'm honestly kind of used to it now. It kind of helps [me] start to think in a way that he might think, and be sort of critical on my own. Honestly, I'm always waiting to hear what he has to say for down the road. After a game, I'll think, 'I did great.' But I'm continuing to try to stay in a growing mindset."

UConn (27-0, 14-0 AAC) plays its final true road game of the season Saturday at SMU in Dallas. Monday night at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies will honor seniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams before the regular-season finale against South Florida.

AAC Tournament games at Mohegan Sun follow. Then it's back to Gampel for the NCAA Tournament opener, with the path to a 12th national championship going through regional play in Albany, N.Y., and the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, where the season began Nov. 12 with a victory over Stanford.

The Huskies look increasingly fine-tuned, having won with authority against some of the nation's elite teams and breezed through the AAC schedule once again. If UConn cared only about playing to the scoreboard and judged itself by victory total, all would be well and good. But the Huskies are measured only against what Auriemma thinks they can and should be -- and there's always room for improvement.

Top 16 reveal: UConn, Mississippi State, Louisville and Notre Dame remain top seeds

"For every good thing that happens on our team, it pisses me off about somebody else," Auriemma said recently. "So I had to have a conversation with Crystal [Dangerfield], going, 'How is it that Pheesa has so many more steals than you?' Every time somebody on our team does something really, really good, it affects the other guys because they're like, 'Oh, jeez, now he's going to get on me about why I don't do that.'"

Auriemma said there were specific things he wanted the team to work on over the course of the final four games (in a span of nine days). Among them, he said Wednesday night, was improving defensively and continuing to run the fastbreak so well. The Huskies did that against Tulane, he said.

Then he added, "We're constantly in the search of trying to get smarter. We did a couple of dumb things today. I'm always amazed at some of the stuff kids do today. I guess they've always done it, but they were met differently back in the day. Back in the day, when you did some of the dumb things I see now, you didn't play much. Now, because it's just so commonplace, you just shake your head. So there's always going to be that, no question, but we kept a lot of that stuff to a minimum."

This article is written by Mike Anthony from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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