When Paige Bueckers went down with a left knee injury late in UConn’s 73-54 win over Notre Dame, it understandably overshadowed everything that happened in the first 39:22. Until that point, the main story of the game was the emergence of Caroline Ducharme and a strong performance from Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
Ducharme’s UConn career had gotten off to a rocky start. Despite earning the praises of Geno Auriemma and her teammates throughout the preseason, she looked lost in her first four games. During the season opener against Arkansas, Ducharme came in during the first half but committed a foul and turnover in four minutes and watched the rest from the bench.
Ducharme then hit a low point against Seton Hall. She was the first one off the bench for the Huskies but seemed to turn the ball over every time she touched it. The freshman was scoreless in six minutes of play.
“Caroline made me look stupid when I kept saying how well she was practicing and how excited I was for her,” Geno Auriemma said on Sunday.
The day didn’t start out well for Ducharme against Notre Dame, either. She checked in with 3:36 left in the first half and immediately traveled. She powered through the early mistake.
“[I was] just trying not to overthink things and just going out and playing and having fun and enjoying it, taking shots that are open and not overthinking about making a mistake and taking a bad shot,” she said.
The turnaround started with a defensive rebound followed by a block and another board. Ducharme went back to the bench at the break and didn’t return until the final minute of the third quarter. Though she missed her first shot, she got on the board with an impressive drive to the rim — an area of the freshman’s game Auriemma had been especially complimentary of.
Ducharme then sunk the first 3-pointer of her collegiate career to push UConn’s lead to 10 and force Notre Dame to take a timeout. Soon after, she continued to get to the rim, scored a tough layup, and also got to the free-throw line.
Caroline. Ducharme. pic.twitter.com/bVxDGHbyFI— UConn Women’s Basketball (@UConnWBB) December 5, 2021
After hitting a few more triples, Ducharme finished with 14 points — tied for second-most on the team — went 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, and also had one block and three rebounds. The 6-foot-3 guard contributed on both ends of the court and proved she’s more than just a shooter.
“Today, she kind of showed a glimpse of the things that she can do,” Auriemma said of Ducharme. “She’s a tough kid who I think enjoys these kinds of games in this kind of an environment. I think playing a game like today on national television, against Notre Dame and all that, I think that’s going to help her a ton going forward.”
Ducharme was tied as UConn’s second-highest scorer with Nelson-Ododa, who became the first Husky to record a double-double this season after totaling 14 points and 11 rebounds.
“I thought Liv had a great, great day today,” Auriemma said. “Liv’s put together some really solid performances, especially defensively and rebounding the ball.”
The senior had shown flashes of progress at points in different games but the light finally went on against South Carolina. In the first half, Nelson-Ododa had arguably her best stretch of play in a UConn uniform but couldn’t carry it into the second half. Still, it proved to be a watershed moment for her.
“The biggest change in Liv probably occurred during the South Carolina game where she more than held her own for long, long stretches of the game and then kind of got worn down a little bit,” Auriemma said. “I think that really illuminated for her, ‘This is what I can be.’ Because we can talk about it all we want, we can show her film, we can do all the things that most coaches do with their players (but it doesn’t matter) until you actually do it.”
The defeat weighed on Nelson-Ododa more than most.
“That loss was heartbreaking for me,” she said. “I took that very personal.”
Since then, Nelson-Ododa’s been a different player. She had a solid night at Seton Hall with 10 points and five rebounds but came alive against Notre Dame.
“Ever since [the South Carolina loss, I] just really try and be intentional and practice about what I’m doing, how I’m doing things,” Nelson-Ododa said.
In the second quarter, she scored eight of UConn’s 19 points and nearly had a double-double at halftime with 12 points and nine rebounds. Nelson-Ododa also dominated the offensive boards with five, one more than all her teammates combined. She drew five fouls and went to the line three times, hitting four of her six free throws.
Nelson-Ododa wasn’t infallible. She dealt with foul trouble, committing her fifth with 3:41 left, and had three turnovers. Auriemma isn’t worried.
“Still not there yet but we’re way ahead of where we were before,” he said. “I’m guessing it’s gonna keep getting better.”
With Bueckers’ status uncertain and the Huskies already short-handed with Aubrey Griffin (ankle, leg, back) and Azzi Fudd (foot) out indefinitely, UConn needs other players to step up. On Sunday, Ducharme and Nelson-Ododa answered the call.