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No replacing Jefferson, but UConn's Chong (18 points) does her best

Hartford — Last month, UConn played without one All-American in Breanna Stewart … and won by 34.

This time it was Moriah Jefferson who missed Wednesday night's American Athletic Conference home opener against Tulsa, sitting out for the first time in her career with a sore right hamstring. Jefferson, the senior point guard, played in the first 129 games of her UConn career and started the last 90.

Without her, the top-ranked Huskies blitzed Tulsa 95-35 before 8,515 fans at the XL Center, with Jefferson's replacement Saniya Chong tying for a team-high with 18 points and adding four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

“I felt really excitied knowing I had to step in and take Mo's place,” said Chong, who has missed significant time this season with inflammation of the IT band. “I couldn't be her, but I had to go out there and give it my all.

“I just had support from Mo talking to me. I knew what I had to do.”

Morgan Tuck also had 18 points for UConn (12-0, 2-0), which won its 49th straight game, Katie Lou Samuelson had 14 points and five assists, Stewart had 12 points and nine rebounds and Napheesa Collier 11 points and eight rebounds.

The Huskies led 49-18 at halftime amidst a 20-0 run and shot 51.3 percent in the first half, 50.7 percent overall.

Chong scored 2,988 points in her four years at Ossining (N.Y.) High School, so it wasn't necessarily that facet of her game UConn coach Geno Auriemma was worried about entering Wednesday's game, but more so the defensive lightning in a bottle that Jefferson brings.

“Saniya putting the ball in the basket is never an issue,” said Auriemma, whose team next goes on the road for a league game Friday at Houston. “It's good that in addition to that, she's tried to do some other things.

“… I don't care if you score 10,000 points in high school, if you come here and think that's what's going to get you out on the floor, that's not going to happen. 'What else do I have to do?'”

Auriemma said that in the past, Chong has struggled with stringing together her good days with any consistency and thinks it may have been the mark of immaturity, more than anything she had to learn basketball-wise.

Chong's previous start came in UConn's last loss, against Stanford in November, 2014. She was 6-for-11 shooting against Tulsa, hitting four 3-point field goals and had eight points in the third quarter including back-to-back 3-pointers that made it 59-18.

“Once you get it, you got it,” Auriemma said, crediting Chong with the persistence it took to improve the other parts of her game aside from scoring. “Somebody else would've said, 'Just forget it.' She had to grow up. She's grown up a lot.”

Auriemma said he believes Jefferson (13.2 points, 6.1 assists per game) will be good to play in Friday's game.

With so many players now contributing at a high level, since both Chong and junior center Natalie Butler (6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 2 steals) have returned from injury and with Samuelson, a freshman, beginning to find her niche, Auriemma was asked what kind of rotation to expect once Jefferson does return.

“There's going to be some games where people play a lot of minutes and some games where they don't play a lot of minutes. We'll try to figure out the formula as we go along,” Auriemma said.

Ashley Clark finished with 10 points for Tulsa (5-9, 2-1), which was coming off two-point wins over East Carolina (81-79, OT) and SMU (56-54) to start conference play.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

@vickieattheday

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