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UConn WBB Weekly: Moments that made the Huskies’ season

A look back at everything that defined UConn’s wild 2021-22 campaign.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week.

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The moments that made UConn’s 2021-22 season

If nothing else, UConn women’s basketball’s 2021-22 season was never boring. In the preseason, the Huskies looked to be heavyweights, then underperformed through the first few games of the season, dealt with a devastating string of injuries, weathered a COVID outbreak, eventually got everyone back and made a run to the national championship game — where they ultimately fell in part (though not completely) due to more injuries and illness.

Even though the Huskies came up short of their 12th title, it’s still a campaign worth remembering considering all the adversity the team overcame between November and April. To put a bow on the season, these are the moments that made the 2021-22 UConn women’s basketball team.

Nov. 14: UConn beats Arkansas in the season opener, 95-80

While UConn opened the season with a comfortable win over Arkansas, it revealed a major flaw: The Huskies were totally reliant on Paige Bueckers. The sophomore needed to score a career-high 34 points while playing all 40 minutes to help earn the victory. The problem would persist over the course of the next few weeks to varying degrees until fate decided to step in.

December: The first wave of injuries hit

Throughout the summer and into the preseason, UConn dealt with mostly minor ailments to most of its roster. Bueckers underwent surgery to repair an ankle issue, Azzi Fudd and Nika Mühl both dealt with foot problems, Dorka Juhász hurt her thigh and Aubrey Griffin dealt with one problem after another — just to name a few.

After the Huskies returned from the Bahamas, they shut Fudd down with a stress reaction in her foot that stemmed from the initial injury over the summer. A week later, Mühl hit the shelf to heal a lingering foot problem that began during the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Griffin appeared to be set to make her season debut against Seton Hall on Dec. 3 before she was unexpectedly ruled out the day prior.

Of course, the biggest blow was yet to come.

Dec. 5: Paige Bueckers suffers non-contact knee injury in final seconds vs. Notre Dame

With 38.5 seconds left in a blowout win over Notre Dame at Gampel Pavilion, Bueckers went down with a non-contact injury to her left knee and needed to be carried off the court. Two days later, UConn announced the sophomore suffered a tibial plateau fracture that would force her out for at least 6-8 weeks. On Dec. 14, Bueckers underwent surgery to repair the knee and doctors discovered she also suffered a lateral meniscus tear. The timetable for her recovery was set at eight weeks.

After relying heavily on Bueckers throughout the early portion of the season, the Huskies now needed to find out how to survive without her.

Dec. 5: Caroline Ducharme finally breaks out

Though Bueckers’ injury grabbed the top headlines, UConn’s win over Notre Dame also saw freshman Caroline Ducharme breakout for the first time as she scored 14 points — all of which came in the fourth quarter. Through the team’s first five games, Ducharme had totaled just four points and did not play at all in the loss to South Carolina.

“Caroline made me look stupid when I kept saying how well she was practicing and how excited I was for her,” Geno Auriemma said of Ducharme’s early season struggles at the time. “Today, she kind of showed a glimpse of the things that she can do.”

Dec. 9: Georgia Tech shuts down shell-shocked Huskies

Just four days after Bueckers’ injury, UConn had to travel to Atlanta and face Georgia Tech — one of the top defensive teams in the nation. It didn’t go well. The Huskies fell apart in the fourth quarter, where they were outscored 18-5, and finished with fewer than 45 points for the first time since 2006 in a 57-44 loss.

Dec. 11: UConn fights back to beat UCLA in Newark

Despite trailing by as many as eight points in the first half, UConn used a 14-0 run in the third quarter to defeat UCLA at the Never Forget Tribute Classic in Newark, thus avoiding back-to-back losses for the first time since 1993. The win represented the start of a pattern for the Huskies: They typically struggled in their first game following a major absence but always figured it out quickly.

Late December-early January: COVID outbreak pauses UConn’s season

After falling to Louisville in its final contest before Christmas break on Dec. 19, the Huskies wouldn’t play for another three weeks. First, the players had a chance to return home for the holidays but when they reconvened, COVID swept through the team.

UConn never said how many people tested positive but it didn’t have enough to meet the Big East’s requirement of seven players due to both the virus and the injuries. In total, the Huskies had four games canceled or postponed and they didn’t return to action until Feb. 9 against Creighton.

Mid-January: The second wave of absences start

While Mühl returned to the court in the win over Creighton Jan. 9, it didn’t take long for UConn to start losing players to injuries and illness again. On Jan. 13, Griffin was officially ruled out for the season after undergoing back surgery to repair a disc. Four days later, the team announced Williams tested positive for COVID and did not travel with the team to Oregon. She missed three games.

Shortly afterwards, Juhász sat out two contests with a foot injury, Auriemma stayed in the locker room at Creighton due to illness, Ducharme didn’t play for over two weeks due to a head injury while Olivia Nelson-Ododa became unavailable shortly before tip-off against Villanova due to a groin injury and missed three games.

Jan. 17: UConn hits rock bottom at Oregon

Of UConn’s five regular season losses, none were more deflating than Oregon. The day before, the Huskies found they’d be without Williams due to COVID protocols, the latest gut-punch for a snake-bitten team. UConn quickly jumped out to a 10-0 start but the Ducks fought back and after they took a 15-14 lead, the Huskies unraveled. They trailed by double-digits for the entire second half and seemed almost disinterested for most of it.

Later in the season, Auriemma pointed to the loss at Oregon as the low point of the season.

Jan. 26: Caroline Ducharme hits game-winner to lift Huskies past DePaul

For the first time since December, UConn had everyone (sans Bueckers and Griffin) available when it took on DePaul in Chicago. That didn’t make it any easier for the Huskies, though. The lead swung back and forth as both teams went on runs until the final minute, when UConn got the last possession with the shot clock off. Auriemma put the ball in the hands of Ducharme and the freshman hit an off-balanced shot to give the Huskies an 80-78 win.

Feb. 6: Azzi Fudd announces arrival to help UConn beat Tennessee

Ducharme played the hero at DePaul, but she wouldn’t be on the court against Tennessee — UConn’s last chance to score a quality win for its NCAA Tournament resume. The game before, Ducharme took a shot to the head in the fourth quarter and did not return. The Huskies held her out as a precautionary measure, which meant they were down their leading scorer since Bueckers’ injury with the No. 7 team in the country coming to Hartford.

Enter the other freshman guard: Azzi Fudd. After missing 11 games with a foot injury, Fudd stepped up against the Vols with a then-career high 25 points while adding four assists and four rebounds. With nobody else to defer to, the freshman took charge and finally started to show why she was considered a generational prospect coming out of high school.

Feb. 9: UConn drops first conference game in nine years

When the Huskies’ starters were posted 15 minutes before tip-off against Villanova at the XL Center, Olivia Nelson-Ododa was among the five listed. But when lineups were announced in the arena, Evina Westbrook had taken her place after Nelson-Ododa became a late scratch due to a groin injury.

UConn didn’t respond well. It allowed the Wildcats to shoot 52% while out-rebounding the hosts 37-21. The Huskies trailed by 16 with four minutes left before Fudd and Williams led a furious comeback that ultimately fell just short in a 72-69 loss. It was UConn’s first conference defeat since the 2013 Big East Tournament championship against Notre Dame, snapping a streak of 169 consecutive wins.

Feb. 25: Paige Bueckers returns in emphatic fashion

After 82 days and 19 games, Bueckers finally returned to action on Feb. 25 at the XL Center against St. John’s. She started on the bench but came in with 3:14 left in the first quarter, where she was greeted with a standing ovation.

With seven seconds left in the period, Bueckers took the ball up court, made a move eerily similar to the one she got hurt on and hit a shot as the buzzer sounded. As the ball went through the net, Bueckers let out a scream, threw her hands up in front of the student section — a reaction as if she just won the game.

“It wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t something extra,” she said postgame.

Bueckers finished with eight points, two rebounds and one assist in just 12 minutes. After going through hell, as Mühl put it at one point, UConn finally had everyone back.

Mar. 7: UConn wins Big East Tournament

Despite the avalanche of injuries, UConn still won both the Big East regular season and tournament titles, the latter of which punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. In the final, the Huskies got revenge on Villanova with a convincing 70-40 victory.

Mar. 28: UConn wins double-OT thriller over NC State

“We have Paige Bueckers and they don’t.”

That’s the short version of how UConn advanced to its 14th straight Final Four over NC State in a double-OT thriller. Bueckers took over for 27 points — 23 of which came after halftime and 15 of which were in overtime. She missed a single shot over the final 30 minutes.

But as impressive as Bueckers was, the Huskies needed a full team effort to get by the Wolfpack. Williams scored seven of UConn’s first nine points as well as its final five. Fudd dropped 19 points and hit more than a few clutch shots and free throws. Aaliyah Edwards had 10 points and six rebounds, nearly all of which came at crucial junctures.

After being too reliant on Bueckers early in the year, the Huskies found the perfect balance against NC State. Everyone chipped in while Bueckers worked some magic to put them over the top.

Apr. 1: Huskies finally get over the hump in national semifinal

After coming up short in each of the last four national semifinals, UConn finally broke through as it defeated Stanford, 63-58. The Huskies, who had become used to bad luck and subpar performances in the Final Four, found themselves on the other side. The Cardinal couldn’t find their shot and also went just 8-of-13 from the line. UConn led for 36 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter, to advance to the title game.

Apr. 3: South Carolina beats UConn in national championship

To get to the national championship game, UConn needed to go through two No. 1 seeds in NC State and Stanford — who also happened to be the No. 3 and No. 2 teams, respectively, in the final AP Poll before the NCAA Tournament. But to be crowned champions, the Huskies needed to take down one final one-seed and the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the polls. That final task proved to be too much.

Naturally, UConn dealt with one last blow of injuries and illness. Juhász fractured her wrist in the win over NC State and didn’t play, while Azzi Fudd — and others — dealt with a stomach bug. That’s not the only reason the Huskies lost, but it made an already difficult task an impossible one.

In Storrs, success is measured by national championships. The Huskies have won too much to be happy with simply getting to the final the way other programs would. But in a season where everything that could go wrong did go wrong at times, the fact that UConn made as much progress as it did with an (almost) fully healthy roster in such a compressed timeframe to reach the championship is incredibly impressive, even if the team fell short of its ultimate goal.

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