Dom Amore: Azzi Fudd is back, a happy occasion for UConn women as postseason begins

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On Jan. 15, following a win over Georgetown, the UConn women’s basketball team boarded their bus out of the XL Center and Azzi Fudd, yet again, had to go a different way, her right knee heavily wrapped, walking out with her parents.

That knee again, and in her second game back from a previous knee injury. No one was sure how it happened this time or how serious it was.

During that week, Fudd called her mother from campus.

“She said, ‘I was going to go to class, but I sat in the film room and cried instead,'” Katie Smrcka-Duffy Fudd said as Azzi was warming up to make her return Saturday. “She sometimes needs to get the emotions out.”

Fudd tore her ACL after her sophomore year in high school, losing a year but making a full recovery. Her career at UConn, one of the most highly anticipated even by UConn standards, has been interrupted three times in the first two years. Now, she wondered if her sophomore season wouldn’t be a wasted one.

“I was just thinking, ‘I just came back, it happened again,'” Fudd said after getting 10 points and four assists in 17 minutes as the Huskies beat Georgetown 69-39 in the Big East quarterfinals at Mohegan Sun. “However many weeks. You don’t really know. Thinking about the end of the season, do I have enough time to come back or am I done for the season?

“All that stuff was hitting me really hard. Take that day to cry it all out, be upset, and get toward the next day.”

Fudd lost a big chunk of last season with a foot injury. She began this season in the spotlight with Paige Bueckers out and averaged 24 points over the first six games, then injured her knee at Notre Dame and missed eight games. After she got hurt again, she missed 14.

One doesn’t need much analytics to understand what Fudd means to the Huskies, how her perimeter and penetrating skills force defenses to change. UConn is 27-5, all five losses coming with Fudd out, or injured during the game.

“When you have Azzi, you’re talking about a Final Four type of team,” Georgetown coach James Howard said.

Once Fudd flushed out the negative thoughts, she got back to work. Getting the knee right would take time, and getting back the confidence that she could move without reinjury would take more time. That began to materialize in this seventh week, when Fudd rejoined her teammates in practice and it felt right, she said. On Friday she practiced with her hair in the trademark braids, a sure sign the return was close.

“This was always my goal, to come back for tournament time,” Fudd said. “I was mentally prepared, when waking up this morning, I was very excited.”

When she was spotted in braids early Saturday, the Tweets from UConn fandom showed they were ready to celebrate her return. Her mother sent her a text from the car with her uncle Ed, who had come from California, and Azzi’s dog, “Stewie.”

At 10:55 a.m., she appeared on the court, in braids, with her teammates. Her mother was painting “AZ 35” on her uncles shaved head. As Azzi went through warmups, her father liked what he saw on her face, in her movements.

“She’s focused,” Tim Fudd said as he looked out to the court. “I look at her, her facial expression, her eyes, tells me she’s locked in. The biggest hurdle is the physical part, but the mental piece is bigger, because her second reinjury, there was no explanation why it happened. That’s hard to get your mind around. But she’s sharp, her body language is saying she’s locked in.”

Bueckers and Nika Muhl, UConn coach Geno Auriemma noted, are “reckless spirits … ‘roll the dice and I’m out.'”

Fudd is more of a thinker, more cautious. “Even when someone tells you you’re cleared to play, in your mind, you’re like, ‘am I?'” he said.

At 12:12 p.m. Fudd rose from the bench and checked in to standing ovation. UConn was pulling away, and she helped with an assist and two free throws before the first quarter ended. In the second quarter, with Muhl in foul trouble, Auriemma moved Fudd to point guard and she passed that test.

“Because she’s strong, she’s able to put the ball on the floor and go by people,” Auriemma said. “Which is really important, because they’re up in her face because she’s going to bury those threes. That was a really good sign, that she wasn’t afraid to get in the lane.”

After missing her first four 3-pointers, Fudd, her father yelling “stay aggressive,” warmed up and hit a couple in the third quarter before calling it a day. Fudd’s workload will probably increase with each game here. The semifinal vs. Marquette, a rematch of one of those Fudd-less UConn losses, is Sunday at 3 p.m.

Fudd’s return gave UConn 10 healthy players for the first time since Nov. 14, but their better luck was short-lived. Caroline Ducharme took an elbow to her head and spent the second half on the bench with an ice pack and ear buds. UConn will know more Sunday.

“The impact [Fudd] is going to have on the team, you can’t calculate that,” Auriemma said. “It’s just everything, the confidence the team gets knowing she’s out there. I always said, if we didn’t get Azzi back, and Caroline [Ducharme], it was going to be a short postseason for us. Having Azzi and hopefully Caroline back, it gives us the best chance to go far, in this tournament, and the next one.”

For now, a 14th consecutive trip to the Final Four, a shot at championship No. 12, at least seems possible, where it was becoming unimaginable. For UConn, for Azzi Fudd, this was a good day, renewed hope breathed into a tough season.

“You do everything you’re supposed to do,” Smrcka-Duffy Fudd said. “She’s a good person, a big heart, you do everything right, you treat people well. And then crappy things happen and it’s frustrating, but as corny as it sounds, things happen for a reason. Everyone has their own road to travel, and hers has more rehab than most people. She’s taken it very gracefully and just continued to keep her head down and work.”