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UConn WBB Weekly: 2021 year in review

Looking back at the most memorable moments from the Huskies during the last calendar year.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Carolina at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week.

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2021 UConn women’s basketball year in review

2021 is almost over, and while UConn women’s basketball is only part of the way through its current season, the end of the year is a time for reflection. This week, we’re looking back at the most memorable moments, the biggest news and our favorite stories about the Huskies from the past 12 months — including last season.

Superlatives

Best play

Few plays in recent UConn history are as dramatic as Paige Bueckers’ game-sealing 3-pointer at Tennessee last season. In the latest edition of the rivalry, Bueckers was in the midst of the worst game of her college career to that point. She had made just one shot and had just six points late into the fourth quarter. Then, Bueckers rolled her ankle in transition and went to the bench with the Huskies up by nine.

The Vols pulled back with the superstar sidelined and got within two with 55 seconds left even after Bueckers returned. UConn had possession and drained the clock down but quickly found itself scrambling to find a shot. Christyn Williams tried to drive to the basket but got swallowed by three Tennessee players and threw it out to Westbrook on the perimeter.

Westbrook gave it to a hobbled Bueckers with two seconds to shoot. Unfazed, the freshman sank a game-sealing 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. A stunned Tennessee failed to score again and UConn walked out with a thrilling 67-61 victory. It wouldn’t be the last time Bueckers came up big at the end of a game, either.

Best individual performance

Against Tennessee, Bueckers overcame a bad performance to give UConn the win. But in a battle with No. 1 South Carolina, the freshman put the Huskies on her back en route to victory.

Though Bueckers had just eight points at halftime, she came alive late. UConn trailed by four with 96 seconds to play but the freshman quickly erased that deficit with two quick buckets. In overtime, Bueckers scored all of the Huskies’ points in overtime and capped it off with a circus 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Bueckers finished with 31 points — including UConn’s final 13 and the last seven of the game overall — to carry the Huskies a 63-59 win.

Best team performance

An inspired speech in the huddle followed by a furious run. A game-changing injury. A defensive stand on the final play. UConn’s 69-67 win over Baylor in the Elite Eight went down as an all-time classic as the Huskies advanced to their 13th consecutive Final Four.

In the third quarter, UConn trailed by as many as 10 with 2:09 left in the period. But after Baylor star DiDi Richards went down with a hamstring injury and Anna Makurat sparked the team during a timeout, the Huskies exploded for a 19-0 run to take a seven point lead with seven minutes remaining.

The Bears mounted a comeback and after Williams missed two free throws, UConn led just 68-67 with 17.2 left on the clock. The game would come down to one final possession.

In two of the last three NCAA Tournaments, the Huskies went home because they couldn’t get a defensive stop on the last play of the game.

But UConn didn’t let history repeat itself. Baylor inbounded the ball and gave it to Dijonai Carrington, who led the team for much of the game and had 22 points. She got past the initial defenders and drove to the rim but was met by Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

The duo controversially blocked the shot — Baylor bemoaned the lack of a foul call, though the non-whistle fit with how the officials called the entire game — Williams grabbed the rebound and the Huskies advanced to the Final Four.

“It was just a great battle by two great teams and it went down to the last possession,” Auriemma said postgame.

Best moment

As UConn prepared to play at Tennessee, it was clear this wasn’t just another game for Westbrook. The redshirt junior transferred to the Huskies after two years in Knoxville and applied for a waiver to play immediately, which the NCAA denied. As a result, Auriemma hinted that Tennessee had a toxic environment while UConn athletic director David Benedict slammed the NCAA’s decision, saying the system “failed.”

Prior to the meeting in January, Westbrook was asked if she had spoken to any of her old teammates at Tennessee, if she had any friends still on the team or was looking forward to anything.

“No,” she replied firmly.

After the win, UConn captured Westbrook’s return to the locker room.

The win went beyond basketball for Westbrook and the Huskies as a whole and allowed her to put whatever happened at Tennessee in the rearview mirror for good.

Top news stories

Paige Bueckers’ knee injury

Gampel Pavilion fell silent when Paige Bueckers dropped to the floor with 38.5 seconds left in UConn’s win over Notre Dame. After suffering the non-contact left knee injury, the sophomore needed to be carried off the court and was later diagnosed with a tibial plateau fracture. She underwent surgery to repair that and a lateral meniscus tear on Dec. 13 and is expected to be out until February.

Geno Auriemma tests positive for COVID-19, misses first two NCAA Tournament games

UConn had to play its first two NCAA Tournament games without Geno Auriemma after the head coach tested positive for COVID-19 on March 14 — two days before the Huskies left for San Antonio. Though he had “no idea” how he contracted the virus, Auriemma luckily received the second dose of the vaccine just four days prior.

Associate head coach Chris Dailey took over in his stead and led UConn to wins over High Point and Syracuse. Auriemma rejoined the team ahead of the Sweet Sixteen matchup with Iowa.

NCAA allows college athletes to profit off name, image and likeness

College athletics forever changed on June 30 when UConn, the State of Connecticut and the NCAA all voted to allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. So far, Bueckers and Fudd have been signed some of the most prominent deals in the nation.

Bueckers partnered with Gatorade and Stock X, an e-commerce platform for sneakers and apparel while Fudd became Chipotle’s first college brand ambassador and also joined Steph Curry’s SC30 Inc. brand — in addition to other, smaller endorsements.

Along with those two, Olivia Nelson-Ododa has promoted a handful of clothing companies on Instagram while Christyn Williams has started a “Curate the Wave” merchandise line.

Paige Bueckers wins national player of the year...and pretty much every other award

Bueckers capped a historic season by becoming the first freshman ever to win a national player of the year award — and she claimed four: The Associated Press and USBWA’s, the Naismith Trophy and the Wooden Award.

Along with those, Bueckers was named a First Team All-American by the AP, USBWA, WBCA and Wooden Award, earned co-freshman of the year honors from the USBWA and WBCA, took home the Nancy Lieberman Award as the best point guard in the nation, captured the most outstanding player award at the River Walk Region in the NCAA Tournament as well as the Big East Tournament, received Big East Player and Freshman of the Year and was an All-NCAA Tournament selection.

Shea Ralph leaves, Morgan Valley replaces her

Auriemma’s coaching staff received a shake-up when former player and longtime assistant Shea Ralph took the head job at Vanderbilt. To replace her, UConn went with one of Ralph’s former teammates: Morgan Valley. The three-time national champion left her position as head coach at Hartford to return to her alma mater and joined Auriemma’s staff alongside Dailey and Jamelle Elliot.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Evina Westbrook returns for her redshirt senior season

UConn’s 2021-22 season would look a lot different had Westbrook turned pro after her redshirt junior season. While most mock drafts projected her to go in the first round of the WNBA Draft, Westbrook returned to Storrs to handle some “unfinished business” with the Huskies.

Top features

Instigators, the dangerous one and ‘a little sneaky sneak’: Evina Westbrook on the many personalities of UConn women’s basketball

“That’s the crazy one. She’s crazy. She’s got no filter. I think that’s just from her just being overseas, kind of just says what’s on her mind. But she’s going to tell you how she really feels. Very open, super funny, always laughing, always a smile on her face, super competitive.

“She’s dangerous. So that’s the kid I gotta make sure I know where she’s at at all times.”

Aaliyah Edwards’ purple and gold braids honor Kobe Bryant — and her late brother

“People say it’s really my trademark at this point because I’ve had it in for so long and it’s how most people know me by. Like if I play with FIBA or internationally, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the girl with the purple and yellow hair.’”

How UConn turned its season around after loss to Arkansas

“I truly believe that when we went from Arkansas to DePaul, that had we played as poorly against DePaul as we did against Arkansas and got blown out at DePaul or got beat at DePaul, I think this season would have won would have gone in a different direction.”

‘You guys need to change the look on your face’: The timeout that saved UConn’s season

Anna Makurat refused to participate in the pity and set her teammates straight when they got to the bench.

“When it started to get away from us, even [Makurat] said, ‘You guys need to change the look on your face, man,’” Auriemma relayed.

In Geno Auriemma, UConn men’s hockey has a big fan and advocate

“You ain’t lived until you’ve had like 12 beers and then go to a hockey rink that you rented out at midnight and play hockey with a bunch of guys, knocking you on your butt. It’s like the greatest thing in the world.”

‘It becomes very Groundhog Day’: UConn women’s basketball’s experience through COVID-19

Evina Westbrook had big Valentine’s Day plans for her teammates. Not only did she have grand ideas for the day — she put together gifts for everyone that were large in size as well.

She gave each of her teammates a card — “a big card, like one of the jumbo cards,” Westbrook said — along with a balloon, a stuffed animal and a t-shirt that featured a photo from each player’s Instagram with herself photoshopped in somewhere.

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Best of social media

Paige Bueckers’ reactions are too funny:

Pretty great Christmas present: