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No Geno, no problem: UConn rolls in NCAA opener without Auriemma on bench

UConn assistant coach Chris Dailey, center, talks with players during the second half of the Huskies' NCAA Tournament opener against High Point. She replaced head coach Geno Auriemma, who hopes to rejoin the team Wednesday after being cleared of COVID-19.

SAN ANTONIO — In a city that knows plenty about the untamed frontier, this was not Chris Dailey’s first rodeo.

While Geno Auriemma and the Huskies have earned 11 NCAA championships, Dailey has been their constant shadow. No one doubts this is Auriemma’ show, but there was a business-as-usual approach when the Huskies took the court for their NCAA Tournament opener Sunday night at the cavernous Alamodome.

With freshman phenom Paige Bueckers and junior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa dictating an aggressive tempo, UConn (25-1) showed why it’s the top-ranked team in the country with a 102-59 victory over High Point (22-7).

The Huskies played without Auriemma, who watched the game from his Connecticut home, some 1,950 miles from San Antonio. After testing positive for COVID-19 last week, he is expected to rejoin the team Wednesday if UConn takes care of business against No. 8 seed Syracuse on Tuesday.

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“We have a program where, hey, the next guy’s up,” Dailey said. “We don’t worry about who’s not here. We’re only worried about the ones who are here.”

Auriemma joked last week that no coach in the tournament field has a better record than Dailey. With Sunday’s victory, she is 11-0 in games in which she has filled in for her boss since they became colleagues in 1985.

Dailey played basketball at Rutgers from 1978 to 1982. She led the Scarlet Knights to the 1982 AIAW Division I national championship. In 2018 she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Instead of taking her customary spot on the bench on Sunday, Dailey stood on the sideline  for nearly the entire game, yelling instructions and clapping for encouragement after good plays.

It helps to have an impressive crop of players to coach. Bueckers filled up an impressive stat line: 24 points, nine rebounds, six assists. Nelson-Ododa contributed 22 points, seven boards and four assists.

UConn guard Paige Bueckers drives against High Point guard Chyna McMichel during the first half of a college basketball game against High Point. She led both teams with 24 points.

Bueckers, though, had a slow start, scoring just two points in the first quarter. She followed that with 11 points in the second quarter.”

“I could hear coach (Auriemma) in my ear after I took only two shots in the quarter,” the 5-11 shooting guard said. “I just know he’s yelling at the TV. In the second quarter I became more aggressive. … I know with coach (Auriemma) and CD (Dailey) here for 36 years, they have a high IQ for basketball. When (Auriemma) steps out, CD steps in.”

Dailey had a different viewpoint regarding her star player’s slow start.

“Paige always likes to get her teammates involved first,” Dailey said. “We needed the team to help her get some shots off, too.”

UConn flexed its muscles, dominating every major category. The Huskies had big edges in rebounds (52-23), points in the paint (62-18) and assists (23-10).

High Point led early, 3-2, on a trey by Skylar Curran, but a short banker by UConn guard Evina Westbook gave the Huskies the lead for good. With Buecker scoring 13 points in the first half, UConn extended its lead 53-29 at the break.

Bueckers said the team needs to win Tuesday to give Auriemma a proper birthday present. The coach turns 67 on Wednesday.