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Nika Mühl, still bitter about Arizona loss, feels like a freshman again

After a bizarre freshman year, Mühl is looking forward to a more normal college experience as a sophomore.

Arizona v Connecticut Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Nika Mühl didn’t have the type of impact she hoped for in the NCAA Tournament. In UConn’s first game against High Point, the freshman guard rolled her ankle and needed to be helped off the court. She missed the next three games and clearly wasn’t herself even after returning in the Final Four.

After the season ended, Mühl returned home to Croatia and decided to give her ankle some time to heal. At least, she tried to.

“When I got home I took a week off from my ankle and then I said, ‘That’s enough,’” she said with a laugh. “[After that] I was in the gym the whole day, every day until I came here.”

Even though she wasn’t at full strength for it, the Arizona loss weighed on Mühl during the offseason. She felt like the team had a collective off night and squandered all the work they’d put in throughout the long, grueling season. This was her motivation for getting back into the gym quickly.

“I just want to get better for my team, honestly,” Mühl said. “I don’t want to lose like that next year.”

Over three months later, Mühl can still feel the emotion of the postgame locker room. In fact, the loss is still too painful for her to rewatch.

“Honestly, I didn’t watch it,” she said. “I know Coach is gonna hear this and he’s not gonna like it but I refuse to watch that game, I just didn’t watch it. I’m gonna watch it eventually but I’m not ready for it yet. I’m not ready.”

Even though Mühl is entering her sophomore year with the Huskies, she has a lot more in common with the freshmen than the juniors or seniors. Because of the pandemic, there were no summer workouts, the season began later and had fewer games. The team also couldn’t really go anywhere besides the gym or their apartments and took all of their classes online.

Mühl barely even knows her way around campus.

“I don’t know where what is. I know where Starbucks is, I know where the library is, that’s it,” she quipped.

It was about as bizarre of a freshman year as one can have. Now that the players are all vaccinated and restrictions have eased up, the Husky sophomores will finally get their first taste of normal college life. Even though Mühl is grateful for what she went through as a freshman, she’s looking forward to what lies ahead.

“I’m very happy that last year was like it was because I feel like it was a very unique experience — although, with all the challenges and everything, of course, it was a terrible year for many reasons — but I wouldn’t change it,” Mühl said. “This year, it’s like ‘You’re a freshman again.’”

Mühl might feel like a freshman but she also understands the expectations on her will be higher this year. Last season, Auriemma often mentioned that he just wanted Mühl to bring energy — anything else was a bonus. Even though UConn is returning all but a couple of players from last year’s roster, it’s fair to assume Mühl will be asked to take on a bigger role, especially when it comes to ball-handling and defense.

At the same time, the addition of a top-ranked freshman class that features two guards will make minutes even harder to come by this season. That could mean Mühl might have to do more while playing less, but as long as the team is winning it’s all good for her.

“I think each of us has to fight this year. [...] the important thing for us is to just win,” Mühl said. “Your participation can be 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, zero minutes, it’s just what you bring, whether that’s energy, scoring, anything. So you just got to find your little role in which you can help our team win and I think we’re all going to be fine with it.”

If a couple of weeks of summer workouts are any indication, Mühl believes not only is she already better than last year, the entire team has taken a step forward as well.

“It’s different vibes this year. You can tell people are mad. You can tell they need redemption. We need redemption — unfinished business as E[vina Westbrook] said,” Mühl declared. “I feel like [Geno’s] pretty happy with where we’re at now. He was very happy with our summer session.”