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Azzi Fudd, Paige Bueckers show great chemistry in UConn’s exhibition win

The Huskies’ rotation is coming into form, and it’s clear this team is deep.

UConn’s Azzi Fudd #35 puts up a three-pointer during the fourth quarter vs Fort Hays State.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In its lone exhibition game of the preseason, UConn women’s basketball rolled by Fort Hays State, 111-47.

Aaliyah Edwards got the start alongside Paige Bueckers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Christyn Williams, and Evina Westbrook. Williams led all scorers with 20 points but five other Huskies reached double-figures and everyone but Amari DeBerry scored.

UConn will open the regular season on Sunday, Nov. 14 against Arkansas at the XL Center.

The Bueckers-Fudd connection

Expectations were always going to be high for Azzi Fudd as a freshman. Not only is she the No. 1 recruit in the nation and regarded as one of the best high school prospects ever, but she also has the unenviable task of coming in behind Paige Bueckers, who just completed the greatest freshman season in the history of the sport.

Fudd’s first game — even if just an exhibition — wasn’t going to be easy and Geno Auriemma knew it.

“I had said it to the coaches before the game, I said ‘The poor kid’s going to have to go 7-for-7 from the three-point line for anybody to be impressed,” he said.

The freshman didn’t hit that mark but she did drain her first three attempts from deep while showing off a quick, fundamentally perfect jump shot.

“She made her first three and I thought, “Damn, she might do that,’” Auriemma said. “But I think people got a chance to see what we’re talking about.”

Bueckers and Fudd are good friends. Bueckers even helped recruit Fudd to UConn. While the exhibition didn’t actually count for anything, this game was still their first action together as Huskies and their chemistry was immediately evident. Bueckers delivered two dimes to set up Fudd for two of her 3-pointers.

“It’s fun. I mean, our friendship is a lot better when we’re both making shots and she’s making them when I pass to her,” Bueckers said with a grin. “So today was really nice. It was really good.”

Although to two have been close for a number of years, they haven’t spent that much time on the court together. The only other time they were teammates came back in 2017 on one of USA Basketball’s youth national teams. Even when Fudd arrived at UConn for the summer session, Bueckers was sidelined recovering from ankle surgery.

“We only got to play together one time with USA Basketball and it was great. It was a great experience. I wanted to do it again,” Bueckers said. “I want to do again for three more years here. And I think as long as we’re on the court together, great things are gonna happen.”

Fudd took a more reflective view.

“There was one moment where — I don’t know if we were on the floor together — but I just took a step back and it was weird that we were playing together,” Fudd said. “I couldn’t believe that this was finally here, that I was playing with her (Bueckers), that I was at UConn with everyone, playing for Coach (Auriemma) and with fans at Gampel. It was it was a weird moment. I just couldn’t believe that this time was finally here.”

First look at starting lineup; rotation

While UConn went with a starting five of Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, and Christyn Williams, don’t read much into that combination. The Huskies used that lineup to open five games last season — including the last four in the NCAA Tournament.

Auriemma said he stuck with it for the sake of continuity.

“It was the same group to finish the season so let’s give it a shot to see how it looks,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that’s what the starting lineup’s going to be Sunday or next month or two months or three months. It just happened to be what it was tonight and Sunday could very well be the same or very well different. And it may be game specific this year. Who knows? But we have options.”

Nine players appear to be worthy of being mainstays in the rotation. The five starters along with Juhász, Fudd, Nika Mühl, and Caroline Ducharme all played in the first half and are the same nine who have stood out the most throughout the preseason. Aubrey Griffin could also join that group, though she sat out Sunday’s game with a high ankle sprain.

While the Huskies have no shortage of talent, there’s only so much playing time available each game and naturally, some players will deserve it more than others.

“It’s actually pretty good problem to have,” Auriemma said. “I just don’t know right now how that’s going to play out. Whether it’s nine, 10, eight, 11, I don’t know. ... It depends on the game. I don’t know. That’s going to be fun to find out.”

It’s also important to find which players work best together. The coaches need to find the right balance between giving certain lineups enough time to develop chemistry with each other and also utilizing the available depth to its full potential.

“You can’t have both. You can’t have that, ‘They look like they’re playing with the eyes in the back of their head.’ In order to do that you have to only play five players...When you have a lot more people that can contribute, you have a lot more bodies available, you’re not going to get that same kind of execution on a regular basis.”

With the low stakes of an exhibition, the coach threw out different combinations to see how they fit together without much rhyme or reason.

“Today, it was mainly just get people on the court, get them playing time and less about let’s go back and check our combinations,” he said.

Update on Saylor Poffenbarger

Saylor Poffenbarger sat out Sunday’s game after being spotted with a boot on her right ankle during warmups. Though Auriemma did not reveal the nature of the injury, he noted the freshman was out for the second day in a row and will be re-evaluated soon.

“We’ll see where it goes from there,” Auriemma said.