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Rich Elliott: Tuck comes through in reserve role for UConn

Updated 12:08 am, Sunday, February 17, 2013
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma had been talking highly of versatile freshman forward Morgan Tuck since the first week of practice in October.

At 6-foot-2, Tuck is the type of player who can be a game-changer for the third-ranked Huskies. She can score inside. She can score from the perimeter, even from beyond the 3-point arc. She can take the ball to the basket off the dribble. She can rebound at both ends.

Tuck showcased these skills during the first six games of the season when she averaged 10.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19.5 minutes. But just when it appeared she was poised to soar, she came down with a bone bruise in her right knee.

At that point, the question was will Tuck be healthy enough to again be a factor. Progress has been slow. But in Saturday's 65-45 win at Rutgers, she proved that she is well on her way to becoming a steady fixture in UConn's rotation by finishing with 15 points and five rebounds in 26 minutes.

"We needed to be able to throw the ball in the low post to somebody other than Stefanie (Dolson) and be able to come out of there with a bucket, a foul or something,'' Auriemma said. "And she gives us an opportunity to do that. I've been saying that if we ever get her healthy, she'll be a big contributor to what we're doing, and I'm glad that she was able to do that (Saturday).''

Tuck was pressed into duty early when Auriemma benched starters Caroline Doty, Kelly Faris, Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with 15:34 left in the first half. Tuck normally does not enter the game that early, but she certainly made the most of her opportunity.

Tuck totaled eight points in 13 minutes in the first half. She scored off of three layups and a jumper in the lane.

"My knee's feeling a lot better,'' Tuck said. "It's still a little trying sometimes, but I can't think about it when I'm out there because if I do, then I'm not going to be able to contribute to the team. So I just try to go out there and not think about it. But I think that's part of me growing.''

Tuck made all four of her free throws and a 3-pointer and had four rebounds in 13 minutes in the second half.

She led the team in scoring for the first time, reaching double figures for the first time since scoring 10 at Oregon Dec. 31. She finished tied for the team lead in rebounding with 5-foot-7 freshman guard Moriah Jefferson. And Tuck finished one minute shy of her season-high, too.

"It definitely makes me want to go out there and prove myself," Tuck said of her role. "That's why I try to have the mindset when I go out there, I need to prove to Coach that I should be on the floor because I'm just not going to get the minutes just because. I have to go out there and prove that I should be out there."

Tuck's performance was part a 31-point effort by the UConn bench. It was the most meaningful contribution of the season from the reserves as Jefferson added 10 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals in 30 minutes.

"This is something that we should be doing every single game,'' Tuck said. "Everyone on our team has to carry her weight. So hopefully this means that we're going to be doing it more consistently, because in the past, we weren't very consistent with it. But hopefully, we build off this game and continue to help out the team.''

Similar to the waiting game that Auriemma has been playing with Tuck regarding the health of her knee, he too has been waiting for the bench to galvanize. He said that Tuck and Jefferson gave the Huskies exactly what they needed against Rutgers.

The game provided a perfect example of what might happen down the road. The starters did not play well early. And UConn needed the reserves to come in and provide a spark. Along with Jefferson, Tuck was there to pick up her teammates.

"It's extremely important to get contributions from everyone on the team,'' Dolson said. "I know going into the Big East and NCAA tournaments, things are going to happen, and some of us aren't going to be able to play because of a foul or mismatches or whatever the case may be, and players like Morgan and Moriah are going to have to do exactly what they did (Saturday). They stepped up, came in and produced for us offensively.''

The Huskies are talented enough to reach the Final Four with a short bench. They have proven that it can be done in the past.

But with contributions from the bench such as those the Huskies received Sunday, it provides Auriemma with greater flexibility and freedom when considering certain matchups.

One game does not cure all ills. But what Tuck and the bench were able to provide at the Rutgers Athletic Center, it bodes well moving forward.

"I've got a pretty good idea what we're going to get from certain individuals,'' Auriemma said. "But you want to be able to trust the guys coming off the bench as much as you trust some of your starters. And this goes a long way for both Moriah and Morgan going forward to know that they can come in in a game like this and they can contribute what they contributed.''

relliott@ctpost.com; http://twitter.com/elliottctpost; http://blog.ctnews.com/elliott/