In 1997, UConn women’s basketball owned a perfect 30-0 record and made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. The Huskies featured AP National Player of the Year Kara Wolters, All-American Nykesha Sales, star freshman Shea Ralph, Carla Berube and Rita Williams. According to Geno Auriemma, they were “the best team in America by 100 miles.”
But in UConn’s first-round game against Lehigh, Ralph tore her ACL. When that happened, the team fell apart.
“The entire team reacted horribly to that. They actually reacted as (if) someone had passed away,” Auriemma said. “It cost us in the NCAA Tournament. We ended up losing in the final week (the Elite Eight) when we could have won had we handled it differently.”
A few years later, bad luck struck again. Senior Svetlana Abrosimova suffered a season-ending foot in February and Ralph tore her ACL again in the Big East Tournament final. While the loss of the two players was devastating, they didn’t immediately derail the Huskies like in 1997.
“Our team handled it exceptionally well as a little more mature team,” Auriemma said.
Now, UConn faces a similar situation with star guard Paige Bueckers out for 6-8 weeks due to a tibial plateau fracture that occurred in the win over Notre Dame on Sunday. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Huskies were already without Aubrey Griffin (ankle, leg, back) and Azzi Fudd (foot) for an indeterminate amount of time while Nika Mühl is a new addition to the sidelined squad because of a foot injury that could keep her out for a few weeks.
Even though it’s only Wednesday, this has already been a brutal week for UConn.
“I would say probably as difficult as any days that I can remember,” Auriemma admitted. “The last couple of days have been really, really difficult on the entire program.”
While the loss of Bueckers hurts, it would be more manageable if the Huskies had their full compliment of players to fill in for her. Mühl could’ve taken over point guard duties and shouldered the distribution load. Fudd could helped replace her 3-point shooting. Griffin could’ve provided steals and disruptive defense.
But with all four players out at the same time, UConn faces a much more difficult task.
“That’s a real gut punch,” Auriemma said of the injuries. “We just gotta weather the storm. It’s just going to be a long storm.”
The Huskies won’t have much time to wallow in their own misery, though. On Thursday, they’ll head to Atlanta for a matchup with Georgia Tech, a team that received votes in the latest AP Poll. Even though UConn is down its best player and has just three healthy guards left, the team knows it can’t make any excuses.
“At the end of the day, we’re still UConn. Everyone’s still after us,” Evina Westbrook said. “No one’s feeling bad for us.”
With a player as talented and as special as Bueckers, no one individual can replace her. Though the Huskies may be shorthanded, they still have plenty of talent available, namely Westbrook and Christyn Williams. While UConn will need both players to carry the torch in Bueckers’ absence, it’s nothing they haven’t done before — it just hasn’t happened consistently.
This season, Williams dropped 18 points on Arkansas and 31 points against Minnesota. Westbrook has recorded at least 14 points in half the team’s games. They’ve proven themselves in individual games. Now, UConn will ask that from them every night.
“When these situations happen, you don’t need somebody to become something that they’re not. You just need them to become the best version of themselves,” Auriemma said. “We don’t need them to try to be Paige...I’m not looking for somebody to come in and say, ‘Well, I have to be Paige.’ Because now you’re asking people to do something that is unfair.”
The same goes for Caroline Ducharme, the freshman who broke out with a 14-point fourth quarter against Notre Dame. She had six games to adjust to the college game and work through the typical first-year struggles. Now, Ducharme will be thrown into the fire whether she’s ready for it or not.
“Whatever it was that contributed to Sunday’s performance in that fourth quarter, we need that consistently now,” Auriemma said of Ducharme.
Since the team hasn’t practiced much since its last game, Auriemma has focused instilling confidence in all his players, but specifically the three guards. He doesn’t want them to feel overwhelmed about the task at hand.
“You’re not asking them to do something that they’re not capable of doing and you’re not asking them to do something they haven’t already done at other times in their career,” Auriemma said. “I think that should be some sort of confidence builder or a sense of reassurance for them that ‘Now coach isn’t imposing these unrealistic expectations on me.’”
That method seems to be working, at least for Williams. The senior is already putting plenty of pressure on herself regardless of Bueckers’ status. After a strong start to the season, Williams has faded with just 10.3 points over the last four games and had just four against Notre Dame. She knows she has to be better.
“I haven’t been as aggressive as I need to be, even with Paige on the court,” Williams said. “So that was a point of emphasis for me anyways, for me to get back to being the aggressive person that I am. And I figured if I do that, everything will flow together naturally.”
While the guards will take on most of the load without Bueckers, they can’t single-handedly replace her 21.2 points, 6.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game. Some of that will fall on the frontcourt of Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Dorka Juhász and Aaliyah Edwards as well.
“I think everyone has to step up,” Westbrook said. “Whether you’re a big guy, whether you’re a guard...everyone’s role is going to be intensified.”
The lack of guard depth will also shake up UConn’s lineups and rotation. With only three guards, the Huskies will have to play with three bigs on the floor if any Westbrook, Williams or Ducharme go to the bench, whether it be for a breather or because of foul trouble. That would require one of the post players — like Edwards or Juhász — to play on the perimeter more.
“Our big guys, they might get pushed out to the wing,” Westbrook said. “We know whatever coach throws at us, we have to be able to adapt. We have to be able to do it.”
For now, UConn isn’t concerned about how it happens on the court. It doesn’t have to be pretty. For the foreseeable future, the Huskies’ main goals will be to win games by whatever means necessary. That’s their mentality going into Thursday at Georgia Tech and beyond.
“Right after practice, we had all just went to the locker room and was kind of like, ‘Yo, we gotta figure it out. We gotta make it work. We have no other choice,’’ Westbrook said.
This has the potential to be a season-defining stretch for UConn. Bueckers will eventually return — and it’s likely the other three will as well. If the Huskies put it together despite all the absences over the coming weeks and months, they could be close to unstoppable once Bueckers returns. If not, they’ll be right back in the same place they were before she went down on Sunday.