By John Altavilla, The Hartford Courant
BRIDGEPORT — He may wear designer ties and have restaurants and a wine label, but in a very fundamental way, Geno Auriemma is a just another working man trying to make a living.
Just the other day, he compared coaching to being an entrepreneur running a small business; subject to the same surprises and challenges as those who ran the factories in which his parents worked.
He had a point. Every day in his business is different. And wouldn’t you know it, Auriemma had a small problem to resolve Saturday before his No. 1 Huskies beat Temple 80-36 at the sold-out Webster Bank Arena.
Just when his roster was beginning to solidify again, sophomore Morgan Tuck, who scored a career-high 19 against Houston on Tuesday, came up with knee soreness and could not play against Temple.
And then with 7 minutes, 37 seconds to play in the first half, Stefanie Dolson went to the bench with three fouls.
For most businesses, this would have constituted an inventory dilemma. But Auriemma’s is the deepest team in the sport. He made the necessary adjustments, giving 28 minutes to Kiah Stokes, who hauled in a career-high 18 rebounds, and UConn prevailed for the 23rd straight time.
Bria Hartley, shooting 18-for-63 in her previous six games, led UConn (17-0, 5-0) with 19 points, three rebounds and four steals. She was 6 of 14.
“I’ve been hitting my shots in practice,” Hartley said. “If I had been missing my shots in games and practice, then I would have something to worry about. It would be harder to deal with. I just realized it [the drought] was more of a mental thing.
Hartley was one of four Huskies in double figures; Moriah Jefferson (13 points, 5 of 6), Breanna Stewart (12 points) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (11 points) supported the effort.
But the best stat line of the day likely belonged to Stokes, who also had three of UConn’s 14 blocked shots.
“We know two things about Kiah,” Auriemma said. “She rebounds and she blocks shots. It never surprises me when she does them.”
Dolson, who had eight points in 25 minutes, had seven blocks for the second straight game. UConn has blocked 31 shots in that span.
Erica Covile, whose three-pointer had once-upon-a-time pulled Temple into a 3-3 tie, led the Owls (8-7, 2-3) with 13 points. The Owls were the first team to outrebound the Huskies this season (42-39), but their 27 turnovers killed them.
For UConn, this first regular-season game played here was also the first home regular-season game in Auriemma’s 29 years not played in Storrs or Hartford.
The crowd of 9,274 tied the record for a sporting event at the arena — which opened in 2001 — set by the UConn men Dec. 28 against Eastern Washington. The acceptance seems to give UConn a big reason to return next season and for many years to follow.
After the game, the players stopped at one floor and waved thanks to the crowd.
“I told the crowd it was great for 40 minutes and we were good for just 20,” Auriemma joked.
But first things first: The Huskies play at No. 7 Baylor on Monday where the nation’s top scorer, senior guard Odyssey Sims awaits.
Owls coach Tonya Cardoza, who spent 14 years as Auriemma’s assistant before joining Temple in 2008, did what she could, just like all the others who don’t know what UConn is a capable of.
She even tinkered with her starting lineup for the first time in 15 games, inserting 6-4 freshman center Taylor Robinson to give the post more bulk.
Still, the Huskies grinded it out, a credit to their stamina since this was the eighth different venue they’ve played since the start of Dec. 1.
Like so many times this season, the first half was a time for UConn to feel out the opponent. The Huskies trailed 6-5 with 18:04 to play, but the deficit lasted just 16 seconds.
“When you start getting in foul trouble, it takes the momentum away from your team,” Auriemma said.
Still, it wasn’t until after Feyonda Fitzgerald’s three-pointer with 12:51 to play in the half, which brought Temple within 13-12, that UConn got moving.
“We kind of put our foot on the gas,” Stewart said.
With 7:54 remaining, a basket by Jefferson fattened UConn’s lead to 28-16. And from there, UConn outscored the Owls 11-4 to take a 17-point halftime lead.
Hartley led the Huskies with 11 points in the first half, but her shooting struggles continued. She was 4 of 10 in 18 minutes. But even with Dolson playing just 11 minutes in the half, the Huskies outscored Temple 24-4 in the paint and 14-2 in transition to take a firm grip.
The Huskies opened the half with six straight points over the first 3:04 to extend the lead to 45-22.
“We wanted to come out and make sure we put a stamp on the game,” Jefferson said. “We realized we had been playing somewhat slower in the first half.”
With 11:09 remaining, Temple was simply out of gas. UConn was leading 61-27 and on the way to another 17-0 run.