Everyone thought Connecticut would be a different team without two-time national player of the year Diana Taurasi, but no one expected the Huskies to be mediocre. After losing on the road to No. 9 North Carolina and unranked Arizona State, and needing overtime to beat unranked South Florida at home, the three-time defending national champions fell out of the Top 10 for the first time in nearly 11 years on Dec. 27. Two days later UConn was thrashed 67--51 by No. 10 Michigan State in Hartford as disappointed fans headed for the exits with five minutes left in the game. "That has to be the worst feeling a player who puts on a Connecticut uniform could ever have," said junior forward Barbara Turner, who was averaging 13.4 points a game at week's end to lead the team in scoring. It was the Huskies' worst home loss in almost 13 years, and it marked the first time UConn had lost three games before January since the 1991--92 season, when Rebecca Lobo was a freshman. Only by beating unranked St. John's 60--32 on Sunday did the Huskies (7--3) avoid ruining another glorious streak: It hasn't had back-to-back losses in 404 games.
What's the problem? The better question is, What isn't? At the moment the Huskies lack confidence, leadership and scoring. (They were averaging 67.7 points a game through Sunday, their lowest output in a decade.) As much as they miss Taurasi, they may miss her classmate, unheralded point guard Maria Conlon, even more. Coach Geno Auriemma, who says he is as frustrated as he has been in 20 years of coaching, has tried numerous lineups in search of a spark; during one four-game stretch he started four different point guards, including former walk-on Stacey Marron. (He has since settled on scrappy freshman Mel Thomas.)
To improve the team's anemic scoring, a desperate Auriemma has even increased the playing time of freshman Charde Houston--the top scorer in California high school history--even though her performance in practice hasn't been up to his standards. Meanwhile, UConn's five seniors look lost without Taurasi and Conlon in the backcourt, and they have yet to play with the swagger befitting players who have finished every one of their seasons as national champions. "For a large portion of their careers, there were other people doing the thinking for them," says Auriemma, "and now all the thinking has to be done by them, and they're struggling."
Things could get worse before they get better: The Huskies' next four games include visits from No. 10 Tennessee and No. 7 Texas and a trip to No. 4 Notre Dame. It may be a small comfort for Connecticut to know that its archrival is similarly foundering: Tennessee suffered its third loss of the season on Dec. 29 at Rutgers. When the Lady Vols play the Huskies this Saturday in Hartford, their meeting won't be the usual clash of titans but a desperate scramble to save face.