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UConn women’s basketball starting to find its identity without Paige Bueckers

The Huskies are adjusting to life without their star player.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Over the past week, UConn women’s basketball has gotten itself on the right track. The win over Creighton helped the Huskies back into the flow after 21 days off while the last two against Butler and Xavier allowed them to play their preferred style.

UConn is finally beginning to forge an identity without Paige Bueckers. Though the Huskies faced two teams with a combined 1-9 record in the Big East in Butler and Xavier, they didn’t skate by on talent. They secured their first true blowouts of the season in a similar fashion. They opened the game with a big run, led wire-to-wire, and made the fourth quarter completely inconsequential.

UConn hadn’t played like this all season.

“The Butler game was the first game we had this year where we could actually sit back and go, ‘Yeah, this was pretty good,’ and we could rest a little bit in the fourth quarter,” Auriemma said. “Every other game has been grind, grind, grind.”

The victories provided a much-needed confidence boost to the team and allowed them to figure out their formula for success.

The first piece is the defense, the one thing the Huskies have actually been able to rely on game-in and game-out. UConn took a step forward in that regard on Saturday by deploying an aggressive press defense that made Xavier’s life miserable for all 40 minutes.

The Huskies forced 24 turnovers — 16 of which were steals — and also blocked 15 shots — nearly a quarter of the Musketeers’ 64 attempts. Once it got the ball, UConn immediately got out in transition and scored 28 points off those giveaways. The defense was suffocating for long stretches and better yet, Auriemma still feels there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“We moved everything up, there was a little more aggressiveness of going after the ball, trying to get in the passing lane,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet. We don’t quite have it like some of the teams that I’ve coached.”

On the other end of the court, the Huskies’ seniors have finally started to look like seniors. For the second game in a row, new career highs were set. On Wednesday, it was Williams with five steals. On Saturday, Nelson-Ododa compiled eight blocks and five steals. Those two alone combined for 30 of UConn’s 78 points.

“If you’re going to keep a senior on the team, they’ve got to be productive. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. You might as well just have four more freshmen,” Auriemma explained. “So what is it that you’re going to bring every game that contributes to us winning? What is it? Then we have to expect it and we have to get it every single night.”

For the last two games, the Huskies have gotten strong defense leading to offense from their seniors. While they still have a long way to go to prove they can be counted on every single night, it’s at least a start — one they desperately needed. At this time last week, the seniors were trending sharply downwards.

It also helps UConn to have a freshman playing beyond her years in Caroline Ducharme. For the third time in the last four games, she led the team in scoring — most recently with 20 points against Xavier. Ducharme did so despite having a rough day shooting, making just 6-of-17 overall and 4-of-10 from beyond the arc.

“She’s acting like one of the seniors,” Auriemma said. “Like ‘I’ve been here before. I know when you need a bucket from me,’ which is pretty unusual for a freshman.”

Ducharme also seems to unlock a new aspect of her game each time out. She started as a scorer, emerged as an impact defender against Creighton, and then set career-highs with seven rebounds and five assists in the win over Xavier.

“There’s times when you forget that she’s a freshman out there,” Auriemma said. “[Ducharme’s] a bit more mature than a freshman — than your typical freshman.”

Those players have formed UConn’s new core without Bueckers. But to make it all work, they needed someone to pull the strings.

Enter Nika Mühl.

The sophomore returned from a foot injury against Creighton and started the next game. Though she’s still on a minutes restriction, the difference with Mühl on the floor is huge. Not only has she given the Huskies a much-needed shot of energy, she’s also tied for the team-lead in assists in each of her three games back and improved communication on both ends of the floor.

“Coach put a big emphasis on us communicating, talking,” Mühl said. “I feel like that’s been the biggest change for us, especially on defense. So I just try to take the lead there, talk to my team, make sure everybody knows what to do. I feel like when we all like communicate to each other together, we look good on the court.”

It’s no coincidence UConn’s two best games of the season have come with Mühl in the starting lineup. Just like last year, her presence is making the Huskies a better team on both offense and defense.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Together, the defense, the seniors, and the emergence of Ducharme and Muhl have helped UConn play like a team. Auriemma said as much after the win on Sunday.

“[When] we had Paige, they were just content to let Paige do everything and that’s not a winning combination, right? So then when Paige went out, I made sure nobody has to become Paige, but everyone has to contribute a little bit each game,” he told SNY postgame. “So you gotta show up and you gotta bring something every game — whatever that is. Lately, the last two or three games, whatever, you can see it. Everybody feels a little bit more comfortable adding their piece to it.

“We’re playing more like a team instead of hoping one person carries us.”

Of course, UConn’s progress will be tested when it travels out to face Oregon on Monday — a team that just upset the No. 7 Arizona Wildcats and is getting healthy for the first time all season. The challenges posed by Butler and Xavier don’t compare to what the Ducks will bring.

But the Huskies can only play who’s in front of them and over the last two games, they’ve prepared themselves as well as they could for Oregon.

Not only is UConn beginning to find itself as a team, but it’s also starting to play to the historic identity of the program — something that had been lacking both this season and in the recent past.

“We take great pride over the last 37 years, we play the same way every day,” Auriemma said. “That’s kind of been a struggle to find that last couple years.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog