After UConn women’s basketball’s historic loss to Georgia Tech on Thursday night, Geno Auriemma saw no shortage of problems with his team. He referred to his group — including himself and the coaches — as “disorganized” and “disheveled”. He lamented their poor outside shooting and lack of physicality inside.
But most of all, he saw a team — despite missing Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin and Nika Mühl to injury — that wasn’t really acting like one.
“I told our team that you’re not really playing as a team. And you can use any excuse you want — ‘Well, we don’t have half our team.’ — and, well, that’s neither here nor there,” he said. “You can still play as a team even though you’re missing key components of your team.”
It took six quarters, but the Huskies finally figured out how to play without Bueckers — and as a team — with a hard-fought 71-61 win over UCLA. While UConn came in with only one healthy player (Christyn Williams) averaging over 10 points per game, five players reached double figures in the victory.
“Everybody was great today,” Dorka Juhász said postgame. “I think we play for each other and that helped us get this win.”
The Huskies’ came out on top thanks to an overall collective effort, but it also required different players to step up at different times.
For the first 10 minutes, it was all about Evina Westbrook. She single-handedly kept UConn in the game with nine of the team’s 13 points and four of the team’s five field goals in the opening quarter. In fact, it took 9:54 seconds for someone other than Westbrook to find a basket for the Huskies.
“There’s moments in the game when someone has to make a play of some sort. And you have to have the kind of players that can make those plays during those moments,” Auriemma said. “I thought E really kind of got us going in the right direction, right from the beginning.”
While Westbrook continued to contribute through the rest of the game, the second quarter belonged to freshman Caroline Ducharme. After a breakout fourth quarter in which she dropped 14 points against Notre Dame, she had two points and three turnovers while shooting 1-of-5 from the field — including 0-3 from beyond the arc — in the loss to Georgia Tech.
On Saturday, Ducharme got her first career start in place of Aaliyah Edwards but didn’t make an impact right away. She missed all three of her shots in the opening quarter and didn’t look comfortable with the ball in her hands.
Ducharme finally got on the board with an easy layup early in the second quarter which seemed to take a weight off her shoulders. She then rejected a pair of shots and got to the line, where she made both free throws. At the end of the half, Ducharme hit a 3-pointer with two seconds remaining to pull UConn within two at the break.
She couldn’t have risen to the occasion at a better time. UCLA threatened to blow the Huskies out and led by as many as 11 points at the 5:36 mark of the second quarter. UConn’s offense looked broken and — considering what we’d seen in the team’s 55 minutes of action without Bueckers — the 11 point lead might as well have been 111 points had that level of play continued.
Instead, Ducharme helped spark the Huskies to an 11-2 run to close the first half. While the freshman scored UConn’s first points of the third quarter, she soon handed the baton to Juhász.
In her first seven games with the Huskies, the Ohio State transfer had mostly looked lost, averaging a measly 2.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and a 33.3 shooting percentage. Juhász went to Auriemma’s office in search of answers, telling him she felt like she’d been wandering off the court. The coach, as he told ESPN postgame, asked Juhász where she liked to go on the court and when she answered, he told her to go to those spots.
The advice, while simple, did the trick. Juhász finished with 16 points and 16 boards — the latter of which tied her career high — while going a perfect 5-5 from the field. She also came up in crucial moments, such as scoring early in the fourth quarter to stop a 4-0 burst from UCLA that had cut UConn’s lead down to two.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit [with] helping out my team offensively,” Juhász said. “So I think just hitting those shots and getting those rebounds, I think that helped a lot.”
From the moment she arrived on campus, Juhász impressed Auriemma with her advanced skillset and work ethic. While she’s dealt with a few injuries — including a thumb problem that’s still hampering her — the coach felt her struggles were more mental than anything.
“The one thing that gets in Dorka’s way more than anything is she tries to play too fast and then her skills run away from her because she’s playing too fast,” Auriemma said. “It’s been a constant struggle since the middle of October to slow her down and I thought today, she had a pretty good pace about her.”
After three quarters in which three individual players stood out, UConn got a true team effort in the final 10 minutes. Both Juhász and Williams led the Huskies with six points in the final quarter with Ducharme adding five and Westbrook had four.
It all came together as UConn used an 11-0 run to put the game away with a combination of strong defense and flowing offense. After a tough loss and ugly first half, the Huskies finally figured out how to play without Bueckers and started to build a blueprint for how the next two months will look.
UConn still has plenty to work on and fix before it takes on No. 7 Louisville next Saturday. But at least the Huskies have the ship pointed in the right direction.
“Now there’s more people in the party instead of outside, hoping to get in and feel like they belong in and can contribute — not just when they have to but they’ll be able to contribute as part of the natural flow of our offense,” Auriemma said.