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Despite depth, UConn women’s basketball carried by stars in opener

The trio of Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook combined for 67 of the team’s 95 points against Arkansas.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In the week leading up to UConn women’s basketball’s season opener against Arkansas, former Husky star and SNY analyst Kara Wolters visited campus and inquired about the team’s supposed depth.

“‘There’s a difference between depth having a lot of depth and having a lot of bodies. So you guys, you have 14 players, can all 14 of them contribute right away?,’” Geno Auriemma relayed. “That’s obviously not true. Then that’s a big question: How many can?”

In UConn’s 95-80 win over the Razorbacks, three players proved they can be counted on: Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook. Bueckers played all 40 minutes and set a career-high with 34 points while Williams had 18, and Westbrook added 15 to combine for 67 points — 71 percent of the team’s scoring.

“I think that’s probably going to happen most of the year,” Auriemma conceded postgame.

Although Bueckers finished with the highest scoring total, Williams and Westbrook got the Huskies started. Together, they were responsible for 13 points in UConn’s 17-2 first quarter start which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. Bueckers, meanwhile, took one shot — a miss — and finished the first quarter without any points.

Auriemma has pushed Bueckers to shoot the ball more from the moment she stepped on campus. But on Sunday? He didn’t mind her play through the first 10 minutes.

“I think that the first quarter may have been more a function of how E and Christyn got started and getting out in transition a couple times and E knocking down a couple threes,” he said. “It really didn’t bother me that much that first quarter.”

Bueckers didn’t stay quiet long, though. In the second quarter, Arkansas fought back from the early deficit to pull within three. The sophomore responded with an off-balance floater in the lane followed by a layup on the next possession to keep the visitors at bay.

She scored 12 of UConn’s 25 points in the second quarter to put the lead at 10 going into the locker room. Arkansas never got back within single-digits.

“The second quarter, we made a concerted effort to to get her more involved,” Auriemma said. “Then the more she got involved, the more we kept looking for. So it just kind of snowballed from there.”

Westbrook had a balanced stat-line of eight rebounds and five assists to go with her 15 points, but her most important contribution came from beyond the 3-point line. She went 3-of-5 from deep while the rest of the team combined to go 2-of-13.

After a streaky season shooting the ball last season, Westbrook has now made 6-of-9 from three including the exhibition game. That isn’t a coincidence.

“Throughout the whole summer and just the offseason in general, just been really just hard on myself on just being consistent so I know as soon as the ball goes up, just telling myself ‘I know it’s going to go in,’” Westbrook said. “Definitely put in the time so there’s no hesitation (to shoot) really, for me.”

UConn’s backcourt was always expected to be the strength of the team, though. The Huskies boast arguably the best guard group in the entire nation and the trio of Bueckers, Westbrook and Williams were integral in the NCAA Tournament last season. And that doesn’t even include freshman Azzi Fudd, one of the most highly-touted recruits in recent memory.

As for everyone else, the performances ranged from inconsistent to invisible. Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards both started but spent most of the game in foul trouble — not unlike the exhibition last Sunday or all of last season, for that matter.

Nelson-Ododa played just six minutes in the second half while Edwards played 11 — much of which came with four fouls in the fourth quarter.

“They just commit dumb fouls and they put themselves on the bench,” Auriemma said of his bigs. “I want to play them. I want to give them opportunities to play but they’ve got to help themselves, too. They gotta make sure that they stay in the game. Some of [the fouls] were just silly.”

The fouls were more frustrating than usual because both players had their moments when they were on the floor. Nelson-Ododa struggled and made some mistakes at times but battled through the adversity and had a resilient performance in the first half — something she’s struggled with in the past.

“Liv’s been different in practice. She’s been much more aggressive and much more active,” Auriemma said. “Just stay out of foul trouble... I just don’t think good players foul people. They just don’t.”

While Nelson-Ododa rode the ups and downs, Edwards was the most impactful post player in her 17 minutes of action. Though she only finished with nine points, four rebounds and three assists, she was a team-high +25 and also hit her first 3-pointer in a UConn uniform on her first collegiate attempt — an area of improvement Auriemma wanted to see from her this season.

Most of all, the Huskies played better with her on the floor in a way that can’t be quantified.

“When Aaliyah is in the game, she impacts the game. Then it disrupts the flow for her when you gotta come to the bench because you’re in foul trouble,” Auriemma said. “But I thought I thought Aaliyah had a huge impact on the game. No question.”

Meanwhile, Dorka Juhász looked a little overwhelmed and never settled into a rhythm in her UConn debut. She ended the day with three points and three rebounds in 13 minutes — only five of which came in the second half. Fudd also had a muted performance in her first action with the Huskies, totaling seven points on 1-3 from deep and 2-5 overall.

“Azzi looked like she was a little bit too passive and too tentative,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know why she would ever even think about having to make a pass. She did that a couple of times when I thought ‘Why? Just shoot it.’”

Nika Mühl and Caroline Ducharme were the only other players to appear and neither did much. Mühl only played 13 minutes and though she didn’t turn the ball over, failed to score and recorded as many fouls as assists (two). Ducharme came in during the first quarter, committed a turnover and foul in foul minutes and then watched the entire second half from the bench.

UConn certainly has plenty of players capable of contributing this season but that depth never materialized in the first game of the year. Some of it could’ve been nerves — especially for the newcomers like Juhász, Fudd and Ducharme. For others like Nelson-Ododa and Edwards, it was a matter of self-sabotage.

Ultimately, it’s just one game against a good, not great opponent. There’s plenty of time for everyone to turn it around. But until they do, the Huskies will have to rely on their stars to carry them.

It helps that UConn has the best player in the country in Bueckers, though. The situation could be a lot worse.

“She’s pretty good, right? We just don’t want to forget that. She’s pretty good,” Auriemma said.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog