STORRS - There isnâ€™t a team in America that Azura Stevens could not start for, though in her first outing with the UConn womenâ€™s basketball team she came off the bench.
That is not a knock on Stevens, who spent her first two years at Duke before leaving and transferring to UConn 18 months ago.
Crystal Dangerfield has been that good.
â€śCrystal has come a long way from last year to this year,â€ť UConn senior guard Kia Nurse said. â€śI think we saw it coming into the summer, and it has continued to progress each and every day coming into the season.
â€śI love playing with her. She is high energy. Her ability to see the floor and make passes on target and on time is great. And her reads and her ability to score off ball screens are both really good. Continuing to work together and find out little niches about each other is going to be fun.â€ť
Dangerfield joined the Huskiesâ€™ four returning starters in the first five Wednesday for the preseason opener and again on Sunday against Ashland - the top-ranked team and reigning champion of Division II.
â€śI came back with a lot more confidence after playing USA Basketball this summer, and I think I built a lot more trust with my teammates,â€ť Dangerfield said. â€śI think thatâ€™s helping a lot so far.â€ť
In 31 games including six starts a season ago, Dangerfield averaged 6.1 points and ranked ninth in the American Athletic Conference in assists at 3.7 and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.2. She was named to the leagueâ€™s all-freshman team. Her best game came on Nov. 17 when she had 19 points and five assists in a win over Baylor.
But after scoring 16 points in UConnâ€™s NCAA Tournament opener against Albany, she had just two points in each of the next three wins. Against Mississippi State she had one point, an assist, and two turnovers in 17 minutes. At the end, all she could do was watch as the Bulldogs ended the Huskiesâ€™ 111-game winning streak and four-year reign as national champion.
â€śI definitely had a little bit of a slide my freshman year,â€ť Dangerfield said. â€śComing back this year I just feel a lot better. I feel like Iâ€™m playing like I was in high school.
â€śComing back with last year in my head and being able to understand what is actually going on here, itâ€™s allowed me to come back without second-guessing things. Now Iâ€™m going out there with confidence and working hard and playing hard.â€ť
In Wednesdayâ€™s 82-37 win over Fort Hays State she had eight points and seven assists in 23 minutes of action.
Part of the reason for starting Dangerfield, Auriemma explained, was to keep the returning starters - three of whom were All-Americans - in positions they thrived in a season ago. Stevens also looked comfortable in her reserve role.
But Dangerfield earned her spot. Sheâ€™s been that good.
Ashland was 37-0 a season ago and won all six of its NCAA Tournament games by double figures. The Eagles return their top three scorers in senior D-2 All-Americans Laina Snyder (17.4) and Andi Daugherty (15.5) along with sophomore Jodi Johnson. Ten of the 11 players on coach Robyn Fralickâ€™s squad are from Ohio. Ashland opened its preseason schedule with a 110-80 loss at No. 5 Ohio State last Sunday.
Former UConn center Natalie Butler, who transferred to George Mason for her final season after receiving her bachelorâ€™s degree in May, has been named to the Atlantic-10 Conference preseason third team by the league coaches. Butler averaged 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds in 15.9 minutes in 36 games off the Huskiesâ€™ bench last season ... UConnâ€™s lone A-10 opponent this season, Duquesne, was picked to finish fourth. The Huskies and Dukes face off on Dec. 22 in Toronto, Canada, in a homecoming game for Nurse.