By John Altavilla, The Hartford Courant
ORLANDO, Fla. — Over the course of the championship era, the UConn women have played in almost every nook and cranny of the continental United States.
They’ve even been to Mexico, the Virgin Islands and Alaska and toured Europe in the summer months. Their travel chests are covered with very cool stickers as one of the game’s greatest ambassadors.
But Sunday’s game in Orlando, the happiest place in the world, was their first on New Year’s Day and first in Orlando since 1999.
Imagine that: Coach Geno Auriemma has been to Morgantown more than Mickeytown.
But this visit to Central Florida, the first road game in their new conference, wasn’t about pleasure as much as progress, although Auriemma understands that a very important element connects the two.
In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, it was about making a resolution to play offense more productively. And that’s what UConn did.
Getting back to form after a rough performance on Sunday, the Huskies defeated the Knights 77-49 at the CFE Arena.
“Getting shots has not been the issue,” Auriemma said. “Making them has been more of the problem.”
The majority of the 3,492 in attendance were clearly in UConn’s corner.
“We’ve been fortunate throughout the years, since we used to play at Miami [in the old Big East],” Auriemma said. “Even then we were amazed at how many [UConn fans] there were in Florida.”
“We just did a really good job of trying to get the ball up the floor quickly,” Dolson said. “And we didn’t stand around so much. We cut more to the basket.”
Dolson added 12 rebounds, all defensive, for her sixth double-double of the season.
“The easy answer is because we threw her the ball tonight,” Auriemma said. “We made a concerted effort to make sure she got the ball more than she had. The other answer is, she runs the floor harder than anyone else on the team.”
Breanna Stewart added 11 points with six assists, eight rebounds and three steals. But she was 3-for-13 in 32 minutes.
Bria Hartley was 3-for-11 and is now 7-for-21 in her past two games. And UConn was 4-for-17 from three and is 9-for-42 in the past two games. But it had 19 assists and 11 steals and blocked seven shots.
The Knights were led by their dynamic sophomore guard, Briahanna Jackson. Only 5 feet 4, she played aggressively and fearlessly and scored 28 points with six three-pointers.
Jackson is the first player to score more than 20 against UConn since Oregon’s Chrishae Rowe scored 27 in November.
She was able to work herself consistently free under the basket and scored seemingly at will with no defender near her.
Dolson made her first six shots, 10 of her first 11 to score 21 points in the first 28 minutes as UConn opened a 60-28 lead.
Many of those baskets were set by Stewart, playing at the high post and using her size (6 feet 4) to see over smaller defenders. The two worked together as well as they ever had.
“We executed, got the shots we wanted,” Stewart said. “It made it so much easier for all of us.”
Next for the Huskies (14-0, 2-0) is Saturday’s game in Memphis. UConn then returns to Gampel Pavilion for Tuesday’s game against Houston.
After the Huskies looked listless in the final 35 minutes of their 33-point win over Cincinnati on Sunday, Auriemma said a few things that indicated he might shake up the way he distributed minutes and the ball.
But the biggest change Wednesday was how involved Dolson was offensively, especially in the first half, when she scored 13 points to lead the Huskies to a 46-22 lead.
It all still took some time to build. Central Florida, playing its first home game as a member of The American, built a 7-3 lead in the first 2:37.
That might not sound significant, but the four-point deficit was the largest of the season for UConn. But it didn’t last long. With 15:03 to play in the half, Stewart’s three tied the game, 10-10. And that got the Huskies moving north.
Relying heavily on Dolson (7-for-8 in the half) and Stewart, who had nine points, the Huskies finally doubled up the Knights at 42-21 with 4:08 to go in the half on a score by Saniya Chong, who didn’t enter the game until 6:08 was left.
In general, the Huskies moved the ball around with great proficiency, not only inside to Dolson, but around the wings, and the work eventually paid off in points.
Once again, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis picked up two early fouls in the first 12 minutes after getting three fouls in five minutes in the last game. She played only 19 minutes and scored six points, taking six shots.