Azzi does it for UConn women

Mar. 17—STORRS — Azzi Fudd wasn't herself in her return to the lineup for the UConn women's basketball team at the Big East tournament.

It was no surprise. After playing only 32 minutes since Dec. 4 because of a pair of right knee injuries, the sophomore guard shot only 32.1 percent from the floor and 27.8 percent from 3-point land at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Huskies, though, were just happy to have her back and they rolled to three wins in three days for their 10th straight conference tournament title.

As UConn begins its bid for a 12th national championship, it needs Fudd to raise her game to where it was in November before the injury bug bit. After a 12-day break, the second-seeded Huskies take on No. 15 Vermont today in an NCAA tournament Seattle 3 Regional first-round game at Gampel Pavilion.

"I enjoyed having a week of consistent play, getting back in a rhythm," Fudd said. "It was refreshing. It was a good week."

UConn (29-5) had 10 players available for the first time since November in the Big East tournament with Fudd being back on the bench. She may not have been at her best but, led by Aaliyah Edwards, the Huskies looked the part in convincing wins over Georgetown, Marquette, and Villanova.

A year ago, it was Paige Bueckers who returned after missing 19 games with a knee injury that helped spark the Huskies from late February, through March, and into early April before their run ended one win short of their goal against South Carolina in Minneapolis.

Can Fudd be like Bueckers? One person thinks Fudd can — Bueckers.

"It's funny, because she has joked with me, 'You want to be me so bad that you get hurt again and you're going to come back at the end of the year. You want to be just like me,' " Fudd said. "I played well in the first game against Georgetown but the next game I had like two points. Again she was like, 'Oh, you're just like me. I had like 15 points against Georgetown and only scored like two against Marquette and two against Villanova in the championship. I was terrible. You want to be just like me. That's why you sucked tonight.' I was like, 'Yeah, that's exactly why I missed all my shots.

"So we have joked about that. I definitely have kind of envisioned me ... I don't want to say carrying them, but me coming back and helping the team to be that team we were at the beginning of the year where teams couldn't score on us. I'm hoping that I can provide a level of consistency that makes it a little bit easier for everyone."

While Bueckers stood out in last year's run to the championship game, particularly in the double-overtime Elite 8 win over North Carolina State, Fudd did more than her share. In her first five NCAA tournament games she averaged 13.0 points. But the night after the win over Stanford and the night before the final against South Carolina, Fudd started feeling ill. She missed the morning shoot-around and scored only three points in just 16 minutes in the loss to the Gamecocks.

She's hoping for better luck the second time around.

"Last year everything about the tournament was surreal," Fudd said. "The first one is like a dream. We went through it and now I know how it works and how it goes by so fast. That I know what to expect will help me handle it a little better."

That includes the pressure that comes with tournament play.

The best way to do it, point guard Nika Mühl believes, is for her to be herself.

"Azzi just needs to be Azzi, and when she is her best self I have no doubt we are going to win," Mühl said. "She is super close to being her best self, but I don't think we've ever seen the best Azzi in games yet. Even with her 30-point performances early in the season, that wasn't as good as the unbelievable stuff she does in practices. We have yet to see the best Azzi, but I can't imagine what that is going to look like and how crazy that's going to be.

"Even if we get half of the best Azzi, that's will be amazing for us. She has a lot to give."

The Huskies have not lost a first-round game since 1993. They've reached the Sweet 16 a record 29 tournaments in a row and the Final Four a record 14 tournaments in a row.

Vermont (25-6), meanwhile, has won 17 straight and is coming a 38-36 win over Albany in the America East tournament final on March 10.

"What impresses me the most about them is they are incredibly well organized," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They execute their stuff. They are precise in their offensive flow. They know what they want to do and they do it really, really well. They play like a team that gets players that may be were overlooked by bigger programs, and they play like they have something to prove."

The Catamounts feel like they have something to prove in their seventh NCAA tournament appearance.

Since the tournament went from 48 to 64 (and now 68) teams in 1994, the No. 15 seed is 0-115 in first-round games.

"UConn is a very, very successful program and it's very easy to kind of get caught up on the name," Vermont guard and leading scorer Emma Utterback said. "We never want to go into a game not thinking that we can pull a win out. I think that's the biggest thing, step on that floor and own it and own the experience, and don' let the moment get too big.

"I think if we play with that chip on our shoulder, with the underdog mentality, and we get overlooked and we capitalize off of that, I think it could be a really good game for us. So playing with confidence and just like we've been here before will be huge."

The UConn-Vermont winner will play either seventh-seeded Baylor or No. 10 Alabama for a spot in the Sweet 16 Monday.

For coverage of all sports in the JI's 18-town coverage area, plus updates on the UConn women's basketball team and head coach Geno Auriemma, follow Carl Adamec on Twitter: @CarlAdamec, Facebook: Carl Adamec, and Instagram: @CarlAdamec.