UConn women’s basketball’s much anticipated freshman class finally made their collegiate debuts Saturday afternoon in the team’s 79-23 win over UMass Lowell. Five of the Huskies’ six freshmen saw their first minutes, with walk on Autumn Chassion having to wait a bit longer to take the court in a UConn uniform.
Piath Gabriel joined Chassion on the bench for most of the game, only getting the nod for the last four minutes of action with UConn up big. Those limited minutes showed that Gabriel still has work to do to gain a spot in the rotation, as expected.
The remaining four freshmen earned themselves ample playing time in the opener and overall impressed in their first college game. Unsurprisingly, Paige Bueckers was the star of the show. She earned a place in the starting lineup, a rare feat for a UConn freshman, but displayed why in her 36 minutes on the court.
Bueckers’ stat line pretty much speaks for itself. She tallied an impressive 17 points, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals — all while looking like a veteran on the court.
While Bueckers’ performance grabbed the limelight, Mir McLean’s debut shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. McLean scored 10 points and added six rebounds, four of which were offensive, in just 11 minutes on the floor. For context, in all of NCAA women’s basketball in the last five years there have been just 86 instances where a player has added 10 points and six boards in 12 or fewer minutes on the floor, per Her Hoop Stats. She did it in her first game.
Advertised as a clone of Aubrey Griffin, McLean lived up to the comparison. While it doesn’t come through on the box score, she was disruptive on defensive and got a hand on many UMass Lowell passes even if unable to secure the steal or force the turnover. She also relentlessly chased the ball under the basket, and earned herself nearly as many minutes on the court as Griffin did.
“What you saw Mir McLean do today, that’s what Mir does every day,” Auriemma said. “You bring her into here right now to this conference and say ‘Mir, I’ll give you a million dollars. Tell me two plays that you guys have run at Connecticut. She won’t get one right. But if you say ‘Mir, when somebody shoots the ball who’s getting a rebound?’ She’ll say ‘Me.’ And that’s what she does and then when she gets it, she’s an aggressive player. That’s what she was today.”
Aaliyah Edwards also shined in her debut. While Edwards’ final numbers of eight points and three rebounds are quieter, her physicality was on full display to start the season, which earned praise from Geno Auriemma.
“I thought she was a physical force inside the lane,” Auriemma said of Edwards in his post game remarks. “I thought she was the most physical player in the lane.”
Edwards’ aggression in the lane and under the basket, especially this early in the season as a freshman, is a good sign for UConn. While Olivia Nelson-Ododa has potential to be one of the country’s elite centers, she sometimes struggles to hold her ground inside against bigger opponents. The addition of Edwards to the frontcourt could help the Huskies mitigate this issue when (and in the case of this season, if) they go against the likes of Baylor or South Carolina inside.
Lastly, Nika Muhl found her way into an already crowded backcourt for UConn. Despite Bueckers and Christyn Williams playing over 35 minutes apiece, Muhl added the most minutes for a freshman other than Bueckers in the season opener.
Despite it being her first game, Muhl looked confident running the point. Some typical freshman mistakes and rushed play led to five turnovers, but overall her performance showcased the passing ability that both Auriemma and her teammates have commented on leading up to the season.
Muhl is also coming off a minor foot injury which limited her ability to practice over the last week. A few more days back in the action could quickly have her looking even better heading into the start of Big East play.
Assuming no circumstances lead to another schedule change in the coming days, the freshmen will get a tougher test in their second game at Seton Hall on Tuesday. The Pirates gave UConn a hard fought game last season, and will serve as a more indicative barometer for how they matchup with a tougher opponent.