In UConn women’s basketball’s first six games of the season, two things were clear: Paige Bueckers was well on her way to repeating as national player of the year and the Huskies had taken a big step backward despite adding talent to a team that went to the Final Four the year before.
Bueckers had to put UConn on her back each time out because that’s precisely what her teammates expected her to do. She dropped a career-high 34 points in the opener against Arkansas and after an eight-point, eight-assist performance in a beatdown of Minnesota, she averaged 21.3 points over the next four contests. The Huskies were a team in name only. On the court, it was essentially Bueckers and four other onlookers.
Three months later, UConn is a completely transformed squad and no longer relies on a single player.
During UConn’s three Big East Tournament games, Geno Auriemma used a rotation of nine players — Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme, Nika Mühl, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams in the backcourt; Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhász and Olivia Nelson-Ododa in the frontcourt — and spread the minutes out evenly. Fudd led the team with 29.3 minutes per game while Bueckers played the fewest at 15 minutes per game.
“There was this perception early on at one point that without Paige, we’re not very good. An ex-coach who don’t know shit about anything said that recently,” Auriemma said, likely taking a shot at a certain former Notre Dame coach. “I think we proved her wrong.”
In some situations, such balanced playing time would cause friction within the team — especially since the Huskies’ injury issues meant players in the rotation rarely went to the bench at times throughout this season. But for UConn, unselfishness is becoming its calling card.
“I think this is pretty special,” Westbrook said. “To be able to adjust and sacrifice for things for your team, especially this team, it’s kind of easy, because we all we all love each other.”
In a season that saw the Huskies lose more games than any other UConn team since 2004-05, personal goals went out the window long ago. Instead, the focus of every player is just doing whatever’s best for the team to help win.
“I’m really thrilled that I could set up four straight plays for Azzi and all the older guys go ‘That’s fine with me. That’s good. She should be the one,’” Auriemma said. “There’s no like, ‘How come (I’m not getting the ball)?’ There’s none of that. Zero. So that’s what winning is all about.”
The foundation of that unselfishness is trust. Every player has confidence their teammates will make the right decisions and execute when they’re called upon because every player has already proven they can. As the Huskies weathered all the injuries, different players stepped up at different times.
First, Ducharme emerged as the go-to scorer in the wake of Bueckers’ injury. When Ducharme missed time with a head injury, Fudd filled the void. Recently, either Westbrook or Williams has been the high-scorer in six of UConn’s last eight games.
In fact, only two players — Edwards and Mühl — haven’t led the team in points in any game this season, but Edwards has been the top rebounder on six occasions while Mühl has finished with the most assists in nine of 20 games since returning from injury.
As Mühl put it following the Huskies’ win over Georgetown on Feb. 20: “Everybody eats.”
There were moments where UConn looked like just any other average team with all its injuries and absences. But as a result of that adversity, the Huskies are stronger and more well-rounded.
“Everybody’s kind of taken their turns and everybody was the savior for that week,” Auriemma said. “Now I think they believe in each other more. They trust each other more. That’s probably the best way that I can put it.”
That trust actually started to form last season when UConn found its stride following the loss to Arkansas, but it didn’t have the horses — or experience — to take home the national championship.
“These guys trusted themselves last year to a certain extent but I don’t think we had enough players. They had to play too many minutes,” Auriemma said. “So when Nika got hurt (in the first round) and we got to the bubble down there, you knew we were hanging by a thread. We beat Baylor and they were immature and they didn’t take Arizona seriously.”
With the NCAA Tournament next on the schedule for the Huskies, they couldn’t be gelling at a better time. There’s still plenty of work to do — Auriemma wasn’t too thrilled with the offense’s execution during the Big East Tournament — but they have roughly 10 days to work on that in practice.
But as long as the trust factor is there, UConn should only continue to get better.
“Everybody’s got to buy in. It’s not like the regular season where, ‘Okay, let’s go watch film and then we’ll fix it the next game.’ There is no next game so the stakes are very high,” Auriemma said. “You can’t go into this tournament with anything more important than where your mind is...if we’re in a really, really good place, everything else will take care of itself.”