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Caroline Ducharme’s ascent continues with strong defensive performance against Creighton

After steadily contributing on offense, the freshman made a statement with her defense on Sunday.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Since Caroline Ducharme’s breakout against Notre Dame on Dec. 5, her ascent has been steady over just the course of a few games.

It began with a 14-point outburst in the fourth quarter against the Fighting Irish, but nearly all her production came in that one period. Then, Ducharme’s expanded her impact across multiple quarters in UConn’s win over UCLA and she showed a knack for making plays at crucial moments by hitting a 3-pointer just before the half to get the Huskies within two.

In the loss to Louisville on Dec. 19, everything came together for Ducharme on the offensive end. She notched UConn’s opening basket, went off on a 7-0 run by herself in the third quarter and scored the Huskies’ first 10 points of the fourth quarter. Ducharme hit 3-pointers, drove to the basket, excelled on back-cuts and scored in transition during a team-high and career-high 24-point performance.

Then, 21 days passed without a game after the Huskies went home for Christmas and were promptly hit with COVID problems after returning. Ducharme didn’t miss a beat after the break, though.

In UConn’s 63-55 win over Creighton on Sunday, she again led the team with 17 points. Unlike the Louisville game, when 20 of her 24 points came in the second half, Ducharme’s production was spread across all four quarters. She had four points in the first, six points in the second, three points in the third and four points in the fourth.

But the most impressive part of Ducharme’s performance came on the other end of the floor. On Sunday, a defensive breakout proved to be the latest development in the freshman’s breakout, with three blocks and two steals contributing to an all-around strong effort.

“She was really good today defensively in a lot of different ways,” Geno Auriemma said of Ducharme postgame.

Ducharme showcased her defense in the second quarter, when Creighton’s Tatum Rembao tried to drive on her, but the freshman held her ground, timed her jump and rejected the shot into the front row. Nika Mühl then came over and delivered a celebratory chest-bump that appeared to catch Ducharme off guard.

“I do remember that,” she said with a smile when asked about the chest bump. “I mean, [Muhl’s] like that...It was great.”

Later, in the final moments of the third quarter, Creighton held the ball for one last possession with the shot clock turned off. The Bluejays cleared out to get Rembao and Ducharme in isolation. But once again, the freshman kept Rembao front of her and sent the shot away.

Ducharme’s defensive emergence is even more notable considering she lost her mark a few times in the fourth quarter against Louisville, which led to some game-changing baskets by the Cardinals. Though three weeks passed between games, she already showed significant improvement in that regard just one game later against Creighton.

“The biggest area (of improvement) for her been not getting lost on whether it’s what switches are going on or what what cuts are happening or over-helping at times,” Auriemma said. “Some of its experience. You just play enough basketball at this level, you learn to read offenses better and that just takes a little bit of time.”

But to say that experience alone is driving Ducharme’s improvement would be selling her short. Over the last few weeks, the coach had mention how the freshman is wired differently than most other players her age and has a mental toughness that is rare to find. In Auriemma’s eyes, development is inevitable when it comes to Ducharme.

“She’s such a competitor. She competes and she wants to be really, really good,” he said. “So whatever she sets her mind to, it’s going to get done. I have no doubt about that.”

Since Paige Bueckers’ injury, Ducharme has been UConn’s best player by a wide margin. She’s averaging 14.3 points per game — 2.5 more than her closest teammate (Christyn Williams at 11.8 ppg) and 1.5 blocks while shooting 55.6 percent from inside the arc, all of which lead the team in that span. The Huskies have also relied heavily on Ducharme, with the her usage rate (which calculates how many possessions end with a certain player) of 22.9 percent being the highest of anyone.

Ducharme just makes plays, largely because of her even-keel personality. The low points don’t get to her and she doesn’t allow the high points to go to her head. Regardless of what happens, the freshman keeps a steady focus on what’s ahead.

“She doesn’t dwell on what she can’t do,” Auriemma said. “She just plays on. She doesn’t worry about what the previous play brought. If it was a made shot or miss shot, doesn’t matter. She just goes on and makes the next play, the next play, the next play.”

While UConn has been so shorthanded — especially in the backcourt — because of injuries the last month, the freshman has turned it into a positive by seizing the opportunity presented to her. The Huskies might be without their main star in Bueckers, but they have another quickly emerging in Ducharme.