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Caroline Ducharme puts clutch gene on full display with game-winner at DePaul

The freshman made UConn’s first game-winning shot in nearly 14 years at DePaul on Wednesday night.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Last season, there was never a question about who would get the ball for UConn women’s basketball for the final shot.

Whenever the Huskies needed a basket to stop the bleeding — at any point in the game — Paige Bueckers delivered. She came up clutch with a game-sealing 3-pointer at Tennessee just moments after returning from an ankle injury and put the team on her back against South Carolina by scoring the last nine points of the game — including a circus 3-pointer to seal it in the final seconds.

But when Bueckers went down with a knee injury this December, UConn needed to find someone else to turn to in big moments.

Caroline Ducharme answered the call in emphatic fashion Wednesday night. The freshman scored the game-winner with 1.6 seconds left as part of a 19-point effort to lift the Huskies past the DePaul Blue Demons on the road, 80-78.

UConn took a timeout with 8.6 seconds left after DePaul tied it on the free throw line. With the game hanging in the balance, Geno Auriemma didn’t think twice about who to give the ball to.

“We were trying to get the ball to Caroline,” he said. “She’s the best on our team at getting to the basket, she’s the best at finishing. So with the score tied, I just wanted the ball in her hands.”

While Auriemma drew up a specific play to run, DePaul blew that up before the Huskies even put the ball in bounds. Ducharme couldn’t get the initial pass so Nika Mühl went to retrieve it at the top of the arc instead.

“DePaul did a pretty good job of taking it away but Caroline moves pretty well without the ball,” Auriemma said. “So she didn’t give up on it and kept moving.”

Mühl handed it off to Ducharme soon after. At that point, all the X’s and O’s were out the window. It was up to the freshman to find a way to win by any means necessary.

She broke into a sprint to her right but slowed up at the 3-point line. Ducharme held up for two dribbles, then tried to burst past Darrione Rogers to the basket. The DePaul guard pushed Ducharme towards the baseline but the freshman picked up her dribble, pulled up, and threw an awkward one-handed shot over two defenders that banked off the glass and in to give UConn the lead.

“You can draw up any play you want but at that point in the game, nobody’s gonna let you run whatever you draw,” Auriemma said. “Somebody just has to make a play and I’m not surprised that Caroline made it.”

Ducharme’s basket was UConn’s first game-winning shot since 2008 — which ironically also came at DePaul with 1.6 seconds left courtesy of Ketia Swanier.

It wasn’t the first time the freshman showed off a clutch gene, though.

On Wednesday night alone, Ducharme already made a few key buckets in the lead-up to her final shot. When the Blue Demons ripped off a 17-0 run in the second quarter, Ducharme scored to temporarily halt the onslaught. Later, with under three minutes left in the game, she nailed a 3-pointer from the corner as part of a 5-0 run on her own to erase a four-point deficit and put the Huskies back ahead.

That’s come to be par for the course with Ducharme: Whenever UConn needs a bucket, she comes up with one more often than not.

Ducharme first flashed a sense of the moment in her first career start against UCLA on Dec. 11. At the end of the first half, she hit a 3-pointer from the corner to cut what was an 11-point lead by the Bruins down to two.

The next game, Ducharme went on a 7-0 run by herself midway through the third quarter against Louisville to give UConn the lead and went on to score her team’s first 10 points of the fourth quarter. Though the Huskies ultimately fell to the Cardinals, Ducharme was the reason it was even close.

More recently, Ducharme snapped an 0-6 shooting drought from UConn at Oregon and on Sunday, scored three straight baskets in the third quarter at St. John’s to spark an offense that had gone nearly three minutes without a basket.

Since Bueckers’ injury, Ducharme leads the Huskies with 17.1 points per game and has been the team’s highest scorer in six of 10 outings.

“I hate to think about where we’d be without Caroline right now,” Auriemma told SNY after the win over St. John’s.

As outstanding as Ducharme has been for UConn in Bueckers’ — and at different times, Christyn Williams, Azzi Fudd and Nika Mühl’s — absence, her rise is even more remarkable considering her start. Through the team’s first five games, she was little more than an afterthought.

In the season opener against Arkansas, Ducharme played four first-half minutes, recorded a foul and turnover, and never returned. She saw 12 minutes of action in a blowout win over Minnesota but only got off the bench for three minutes the next day against USF and wasn’t deemed useful enough to play in the loss to South Carolina.

After she had a turnover fest at Seton Hall on Dec. 3, Ducharme finally broke through with a 14-point fourth quarter against Notre Dame two days later. Since then, the freshman has made a stunning ascent to become UConn’s most important player.

The game-winner at DePaul simply confirmed what was already suspected: Ducharme is a special talent with intangible qualities that can’t be taught. And until further notice, she’ll be the one with the ball in her hands when the Huskies need a basket.