For Tennessee, getting burned by a UConn freshman has become a yearly tradition. Since the series between the two schools was renewed, a first-year player has made the difference for the Huskies in each victory.
In 2020, Aubrey Griffin’s energy and hustle on the glass and defensive intensity got into Tennessee’s head and it started to throw the ball into the crowd even when no UConn defender was near. Last season, Paige Bueckers hit a game-clinching 3-pointer in the final minute as the shot clock expired — minutes after rolling her ankle.
On Sunday, it was Azzi Fudd’s turn to etch her name into the storied history of the rivalry with a team-high 25 points on 7-of-9 shooting in her first career start. She couldn’t be stopped in the second half, collecting 16 points while going a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor.
“We knew going in, you don’t leave her open,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said after the game. “The game plan was not to leave Azzi Fudd open. That was not the game plan.”
Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, the Vols’ game plan didn’t either. Twelve seconds in, Fudd drilled a 3-pointer on UConn’s opening possession.
“If you have a breakdown defensively, she’s going to knock it down,” Harper said. “We started the game with a defensive breakdown. First possession, she hit a three. You can’t have mental lapses against a player like that.”
While the triple started her out, most of Fudd’s impact in the first quarter came from passing the ball. Though she was only credited with one assist in the opening 10 minutes, she saw the floor well and made good decisions with the ball to keep the offense flowing in the half-court.
“She had a couple great passes,” Geno Auriemma said.
Fudd finished the first half with nine points — second-most on the team — along with three assists but she seemed to only scratch the surface with her impact. Fudd had plenty of good looks but went just 3-of-10.
Those same shots started falling in the second half, even if she didn’t get an opportunity for as many. Early in the third quarter, the Vols were determined not to let the freshman beat them. They played tight defense on her and only allowed her to get off two shots — both of which she made for five points.
But then, Tennessee’s defensive breakdowns returned in the fourth quarter and Fudd exploded for 11 points to help the Huskies put the game away.
“Azzi’s like a walking bucket,” Evina Westbrook said. “Literally whenever the ball comes out of her hands, we know it’s going in — no question.”
While UConn is already into the last month of the regular season, Sunday was just Fudd’s eighth collegiate game after she missed all of December and most of January with a foot injury. Though she flashed a few times — including an 18-point night against USF in the Battle 4 Atlantis and a 15-point game at DePaul last week — Fudd didn’t immediately look like the can’t-miss, generational prospect that she was touted as out of high school.
That changed against Tennessee.
“She was in eight games but there were a lot of games that she really didn’t play. She didn’t feel comfortable playing and she wasn’t herself,” Auriemma said. “Today, I think was the first game where she took it upon herself to be present the entire game.”
Fudd’s arrival was also timely. Less than an hour before tip-off, the team announced Caroline Ducharme would not play. Considering she averaged a team-high 16.3 points since Bueckers went down injured and 18.0 points over the last 10 games, it looked like the snake-bitten Huskies were set to be dealt another major blow.
To make matters worse, the Vols came into the game with the second-best field goal defense in the nation, holding opponents to just 32.5 percent from the floor. As difficult as the task already projected to be, UConn had to figure out how to find the basket without its best scorer in Ducharme.
“Makes it look easy, doesn’t she?” Auriemma said. “It’s like a machine, man.”
Fudd wasn’t fazed at all by the bright lights, the history of the rivalry, or the weight of expectations as a No. 1 recruit. From Auriemma’s view, she might as well have been a regular kid playing in front of an empty gym.
“Azzi looked happy playing basketball today,” he said. “Sometimes kids that come in with that kind of hype, it’s almost like an obligation. Like, ‘Everyone expects me to do this. So I hope I don’t let anybody down.’ Today, she just like she just looked like a happy kid playing a game she loves.”
“It’s pretty hard to not be happy when your teammates get you so many open shots,” she said.
UConn badly needed the win over Tennessee to boost its tournament resume and someone had to step into the void left by Ducharme. Though Fudd’s only just becoming a factor down the final stretch of the regular season, it’s better late than never.
Plus, her performance on Sunday is likely on a preview of what’s still to come.
“If you’d have watched the game, you would’ve thought she was an upperclassman playing out there, that she was a senior,” Auriemma said. “So eight games into her freshman career, that was pretty good. If that’s the worst she ever looks, it’s gonna be pretty good.”