Dom Amore: Nika Muhl lights the fire, and the UConn women’s basketball team is heating up at the right time
UNCASVILLE – The calendar has turned to the month the UConn women’s basketball program has dominated for so long. The Huskies have dominated it with talent, dominated with coaching and dominated with that certain something that Nika Muhl carries into the game.
“Some people are [built for it],” Geno Auriemma said. “Nika has more confidence than game. There are things she thinks she can do on a basketball court that she can’t do, but she doesn’t know that and doesn’t care. So her confidence level is, ‘I can do anything on that basketball court,’ and the bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the more pressure, it doesn’t faze her one bit.”
Confidence is one part of the definition. Toughness, edge are others. Whatever you call it, Muhl, the point guard from Croatia who has caved a place in UConn history, has it. On those rare days when she doesn’t, such as the last time they played Marquette, the Huskies are in trouble.
But that was Feb. 9, when UConn lost at Marquette, in the regular season. Sunday was the Big East semifinals, and Muhl had 11 points, 10 assists, a finger to the chest and her nose as close as it could get to her a opponent’s. UConn won 81-59.
“That game was definitely on our minds, and me personally,” Muhl said. “I’m not going to lie. I remember them celebrating against us and I feel like we brought that to the game today and it definitely showed. I feel like we punched them, they tried to punch us back and we just kept punching the whole game. … And we won.”
The Huskies, Marquette coach Megan Duffy said, looked like the March version of UConn everyone is used to seeing, especially in conference. All the indicators pointed to a more competitive Big East tournament in 2023, with at least four legitimate at-large NCAA contenders, UConn losing to Marquette and St. John’s late in the season and struggling to win other conference games by single digits.
The conference is better and will have its share of tournament bids, but the Big East Tournament has, to this point, has played like another UConn Invitational. The Huskies, in a final for the 19th year in a row, can win their 10th straight conference championship, AAC and Big East. They beat Georgetown by 30, Marquette by 29 and face either Creighton or Villanova Monday night.
“We definitely have a diffeent edge to us when March comes,” Muhl said, “and the games really, really, really matter. Our energy was great today, our defense was amazing, we’re just going to continue to keep that up because every game matters.”
Muhl broke Sue Bird’s single season record for assists and is still collecting them. She heard from Bird this week, a cool thing for sure. And she blushed when she was reminded that, a couple of weeks ago, Tristen Newton of the men’s team got 12 in a game and teammate Nahiem Alleyne told him he “played like Nika Muhl.”
“That was a nice compliment,” Muhl said.
It’s a worthy goal of any point guard to play like Muhl, or Bird, or Jennifer Rizzotti, a UConn point guard. Auriemma knows when he has one, because she’ll talk back – in a contructive way, at least.
“I can be tough on her, because she wants that, she appreciates that, she responds to that,” Auriemma said. “Nika is confident enough in who she is to tell me exactly where she is, relative to me. ‘This is what I think,’ she says. And I like our point guards to be like that, because it’s supposed to be a collaboration.”
What Auriemma wants, and the Huskies need most from Muhl is the fire in the eyes. Going into that game at Marquette, coming toward the end of a long stretch of games in which UConn was short handed, and on the heels of a grueling loss to No.1 South Carolina, it was missing. And UConn ended up losing back-to-back games for the first time in 30 years.
“You could see, it was difficult,” Auriemma said. “The energy level that we normally have, and that starts with Nika, we didn’t have it. There wasn’t that normal fire in her, and the rest of the team felt it as well.”
That was Feb. 9 in Milwaukee. This is March, the games are bigger, and Auriemma made it clear he is tired of talkng about being tired. Muhl has re-ignited the fire. Having 10 players available, with Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme, make a difference. The Huskies can play more tenacious on defense and not fear foul trouble. Muhl can attack, and she will get whistled for charging more often than Auriemma likes.
But he’ll take it, and all that comes with Nike Muhl. In this place and time, the Huskies can’t do without it.
“So if you have a leader like that on your team,” Auriemma said, “it does rub off on the rest of your players. If she’s running out of the tunnel and you’re following her, that’s a pretty good person to follow into what’s coming next.”