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It's not too late for Mo to help out

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published March 11. 2013 4:00AM

Hartford

This is usually the time of year Geno Auriemma can hit auto pilot. He knows who will start, who will finish. He knows substitution patterns. He knows who will get shots and where they'll come from. Lockstep precision, the Rockettes in Nikes, maestro Geno leading the philharmonic.

"I used to have it all," he said with a wry grin Sunday night at the XL Center.

Perhaps his team's 28-3 record would confuse casual observers as to why Auriemma suddenly speaks in the past tense. But it's been a while here since Auriemma, in game 31, has tinkered with his lineup, pondering as many questions as answers.

It was freshman Mo Jefferson in at point guard Sunday for what became a 94-61 waltz over DePaul in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, little Mo summoned to fix the leaky faucet in the backcourt.

"Some years, you're still searching at this time of year. It's not a great situation," the coach was saying outside the locker room. "It is what it is. It's been such a difficult year injury wise. There hasn't been a whole lot of continuity in practice so we haven't been able to build the kind of trust and confidence in each other you really need.

"But," Auriemma said, "It's never too late. It can be too late at some point, but it's not too late right now. But we're not coming into this like Patton coming into Germany on one of his tanks."

It's more like Patton in a Toyota Camry. Reliable enough vehicle, but not one that inspires the same audacity.

But as Auriemma said: It's not too late. Especially if Jefferson, the gutty little speedball who finished with 12 points, three rebounds and three assists, duplicates this tonight, Tuesday and beyond.

Full disclosure: It's not recommended to draw too many conclusions from this game. DePaul couldn't guard a turtle with a case of the gout. But this much we know: Jefferson at least contributes a few more volts than Caroline Doty, whose experience has not matched her production.

Jefferson (516) and Doty (527) entered Sunday's game playing virtually the same minutes this season. Here is how numbers can deceive, however. In UConn's seven games against its best competition - Maryland, Penn State, Baylor, Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame twice - Jefferson has averaged seven minutes per game. Doty has averaged 17.7.

It's always been a matter of trust, as Billy Joel once sang.

Opting for the sixth-year senior over the freshman is always sound reasoning. But does Auriemma regret not using Jefferson more against the iron of the schedule?

"Only if I thought her confidence level in practice was so high that she wouldn't be affected by it," he said. "To be honest, if I'd have put her in there as much as I did Stewie (Breanna Stewart), the same thing would have happened. She would have been shellshocked. Because she's been shellshocked in practice.

"Being a freshman here isn't like being a freshman anywhere else," he said. "You come here and you don't play well, the weight of the world is on your shoulders. I kept waiting for her go through a stretch in practice where her confidence level is really high and she feels good about herself. I never saw that. But it doesn't mean I shouldn't have thrown her out there anyway."

Then he paused and said, "Little by little, she's going to get it. It's never too late, right?"

Jefferson has everything Auriemma wants. Especially down the road: trustworthy with the ball, quick defender and thrives in transition. Auriemma loves to talk about the old Edmonton Oilers of Gretzky and Kurri. Free flowing, relentless offense. Jefferson could be the catalyst.

Auriemma said she's not ready for that yet. Just be the old "game manager," not Brett Favre.

"I don't know any freshman point guard in America that does," he said, alluding to a question about whether she could stabilize the offense in times of distress. "That's why none of them are worth a (hoot).

Not one team playing for a national championship has a freshman point guard.

"But having said that," he said, "I want her response against pressure to be aggressive and attack like she did today. Pulling it out and actually trying to get us into our offense, that's not going to happen. As long as she's aggressive, I'm good."

This is the same Mo Jefferson who went crashing into the media table after a loose ball, startling play-by-play voice Bob Picozzi, who said later he was shocked Jefferson got up that quickly.

"It didn't even hurt," Jefferson said. "The only thing that hurt was when I hit the floor and hit my arm. The only reason I stayed down so long is because I got caught in the wires."

Which is better than being caught in Geno's ire.

"I know I can be a good point guard here," Mo Jefferson said later.

Her coaches know it, too.

That's why they recruited her.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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