Sports

With Star Players Sidelined, the Rest of UConn’s Roster Proves Itself

STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma has won 11 national championships as the head coach of the women’s basketball program at the University of Connecticut, and he believes he has what he needs to make it a dozen.

He jokingly refers to his pair of 5-foot-11 guards, Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd, two of the best players in the game, as the Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the Huskies.

Bueckers and Fudd teamed up last season to help lead UConn to the Final Four in Minneapolis, but because of knee injuries, they have not played together since the Huskies lost to South Carolina in the championship game last April.

“So much for having two of the generational players, right?” Auriemma, 68, said sarcastically on Friday as he sat in the first row of the Gampel Pavilion stands during practice. “Paige and Azzi coming here together, Mantle and Maris, you know?”

As he surveyed his team while sitting beneath his championship banners, Auriemma’s program looked more like a hospital ward than a basketball team.

Fudd, a sophomore from Arlington, Va., who counts Stephen Curry among her fans (Curry signed her in November to his company SC30 Inc.), hobbled onto the court on crutches with a black brace on her right knee. UConn’s leading scorer at 17.9 points per game, Fudd injured the knee during a Dec. 4 loss at Notre Dame and missed eight games.

She returned against St. John’s on Jan. 11, scoring 14 points. But in a win against Georgetown four days later, she reinjured the knee. She will be re-evaluated in two weeks, Auriemma said. Among the games she will miss is one against a longtime rival, Tennessee, on Thursday, and one against South Carolina, on Feb. 5, in a rematch of the 2022 national championship game.

Bueckers, who is from Hopkins, Minn., wore a sleeve on her left knee as she passed the ball to her teammates during practice on Friday. The national player of the year in 2021, she tore an anterior cruciate ligament while playing in a pickup game last August and is out for the season.

The two have played together in 15 of a possible 55 games over the past two seasons. Of those 15 games, Auriemma said, Bueckers was at full strength for only a handful of games last year.

Despite having just seven available players, the Huskies are ranked No. 5 nationally with a 17-2 record, 10-0 in the Big East, after Saturday’s 79-39 blowout of Butler at Gampel.

“The thing that I’m most happy about is the last couple of games now, everyone that’s been on the floor has made a significant contribution, and that’s the way we have to go about this,” Auriemma said in a television interview with SNY after the win.

UConn’s Azzi Fudd, left, spoke with her teammate Paige Bueckers while the Huskies warmed up on Saturday.Credit…Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Bueckers and Fudd aren’t the only injured players. The sophomore guard Caroline Ducharme, a preseason All-Big East selection, remains in concussion protocol and hasn’t played since Dec. 31. The freshman forward Ayanna Patterson, the Big East preseason freshman of the year, is also in concussion protocol and hasn’t played since Jan. 5, but is expected back in the next couple of games.

Even Auriemma has missed time. His mother, Marsiella, died last month at age 91. He coached the Huskies against Maryland three days later, but has missed four games this season because of illness.

He began his coaching career at UConn in 1985 and says he does not remember a single player getting hurt from the start of his career until guard Shea Ralph tore her right A.C.L. twice in six months in 1997.

He called the current spate of injuries “payback for all these years we didn’t have any issues.”

Even UConn’s so-called healthy players have had ailments. Aaliyah Edwards, a junior forward from Kingston, Ontario, who has worn streaks of purple and gold in her hair this season to honor Kobe Bryant, broke her nose in a collision with her teammate Nika Muhl in the first week of practice and has worn a face mask since.

Edwards, who is 6 feet 3 inches, has taken on a bigger leadership role while averaging close to a double-double with 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds. Against Butler, she had 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals.

She said that the players had become somewhat “numb” to all the injuries in the program but that the healthy players felt “a bit of extra motivation for those who can’t play.”

It seems like everyone is pitching in. Lou Lopez Sénéchal, a Fairfield transfer from France, has averaged 16.7 points and made 47 3-pointers, and forward Dorka Juhasz, a graduate student from Hungary, has contributed 14.5 points and 11 rebounds a game.

The redshirt junior forward Aubrey Griffin, an Ossining, N.Y., native whose father, Adrian, is an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors and whose younger brother, A.J., is a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks, has put up 13.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Aubrey Griffin knows about injuries, having missed all of last season with a back problem.

“I wanted to come back and do everything I could possible to help my teammates, and the position we were in, I knew I could go out there and help them,” she said.

Anthony Bozzella, the Seton Hall coach whose team absorbed a 103-58 beating from Connecticut on Tuesday, and who faces Auriemma at least twice a year in league play, said Auriemma had elevated already talented players.

“I’ve always said this,” Bozzella said in a phone interview. “He’s not the best coach ever because he’s got the best players. He’s the best coach because he’s developed the best players. His players get better.”

Connecticut has had numerous players taken in the W.N.B.A. draft, and Bueckers, Edwards and Fudd are eligible to go in 2024. Bueckers has said she will return for next season.

UConn Coach Geno Auriemma talked with Nika Muhl during the game against Butler.Credit…Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Auriemma’s message to Edwards was simple.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be dominant every night, not just for the younger players’ sake or for our sake but for your sake for where you want to go,’” he said, referring to the W.N.B.A.

The Huskies are in a stretch of five games in 12 days, which will conclude with the visit on Thursday to Tennessee, which won eight national championships under Pat Summitt, who died in 2016.

“Our five starters are physically tired, mentally tired,” Auriemma said.

Three days after the Tennessee game, the Huskies will host No. 22 Villanova in Hartford. Villanova features the Big East preseason player of the year, Maddy Siegrist, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native who leads Division I in scoring at 28.8 points per game.

The biggest test comes Feb. 5, again in Hartford, when the Huskies host No. 1 South Carolina. The Gamecocks, ranked No. 1 for 30 straight weeks, feature the reigning national player of the year, Aliyah Boston, a senior forward averaging 12.5 points and 9.4 rebounds.

“I think it’s a learning process for everyone and being kind of throw into the fire like this is going to prepare them down the road,” Edwards said of her teammates. “So when we have everyone back, everyone healthy, we’re going to be dangerous. But until then, we’ve got to hold our own.”

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