No basketball team is lucky enough to avoid injuries for an entire season. But the bout of ailments the 2021-22 UConn women’s basketball team has experienced so far this year — leaving it without reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers as well as three other critical pieces in Azzi Fudd, Nika Mühl and Aubrey Griffin — is rather usual for the program, especially in recent years.
In the Huskies’ three games since losing Bueckers and Mühl, two of which were losses to currently ranked teams, they had just three guards available, and none of their typical point guards. Coach Geno Auriemma has mostly used a seven-player rotation after starting the season with a 14-person roster, which has since dwindled further with the transfers of Saylor Poffenbarger and Mir McLean.
To put this trying stretch into a broader context, and glean some takeaways on how the current UConn team should proceed, here is some history of similar injury woes the Huskies have faced:
Overview: ‘Snake-bit’ late ′90s
After UConn took home its first national title in 1995, it wasn’t long before Auriemma started to believe the program was “snake bit.” Despite having plenty of talent poised to establish a championship tradition in Storrs, a rash of injuries to star players hindered the Huskies from making the Final Four from 1997-1999. Auriemma was left fearing his program would end up a one-hit wonder.
In the first round of 1997 NCAA Tournament, UConn lost Shea Ralph, then a freshman spark-plug off the bench, to an ACL tear. The next season, the Huskies were without Ralph all season after she re-tore the ligament in August, as well as Nykesha Sales after the All-American ruptured an Achilles tendon against Notre Dame on Senior Day. Svetlana Abrosimova took the reins of that team as a freshman, but even she was hobbled in the NCAA Tournament that year with a stress fracture in her left foot. The Huskies would lose to NC State in the 1998 Elite Eight and, eight games into the following season (1998-99), a promising freshman point guard by the name of Sue Bird tore an ACL in practice and was done for the year.
The Huskies finally broke that stroke of misfortune when they stayed healthy and won it all in 2000, but more troubles came their way in 2000-01: Ashley Battle and Kelly Schumacher dealt with injuries early on, but most significantly Abrosimova and Ralph ― lauded at the time as a national player of the year candidate and the heart of the team, respectively ― suffered season-ending ligament tears (the former in a foot, the latter an ACL) late in the season.
Closest parallel: 1998-99
The 1998-99 season may offer the closest parallel to what this season’s UConn team has experienced. A team that had scored 100 points in 11 of its first 16 games suddenly found itself without not just Bird, but Swin Cash when she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right leg in late December. She missed three games and played limited minutes in four others, including UConn’s losses to Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, before she was shut down to properly heal.
Then Ralph and Amy Duran suffered injuries against Miami in mid-January. Missing four of their top six players, the Huskies fell to Boston College the next game for the first time in nine years, also the first time since 1993 that they lost three games in a two-week span.
“For 11 years, we never had to worry about anyone missing more than one or two games. I guess we used [the luck] all up,” Auriemma said in January of that season. “I guess it’s a test. I’ve resigned myself to the situation, however. It is what it is. You just have to go on with the guys you have. If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done.”
The road didn’t get any easier with Rutgers, a top-15 team and UConn’s Big East rival, up next. Behind Abrosimova’s heroics, the Huskies came away with a 56-55 victory. The Russian transplant compared the locker room feeling to “like we had won the national championship.”
The Huskies went on to win a share of the Big East regular season title and take home the conference tournament crown before falling in the Sweet 16 to Iowa State, 64-58. Having so many players in and out of the rotation (due to injury or unsatisfactory play), the Huskies were constantly tinkering with their style of play. They didn’t have enough time to figure things out.
“We never had a chance to be together long enough to improve [from November to March],” Auriemma said after the loss. “Every time we got really good at something, we had to change the kids we were playing. We never settled into a routine. We never had a sense of who the go-to players were, who the leaders were, who would distribute and rebound the ball. It never felt like there was any continuity.”
He added: “We had the type of players who were young enough to keep things going when things were going good. But if things didn’t pan out, we were going to need some help from the other team. And that’s a bad way to go into the NCAAs.”
Fresh on Auriemma’s mind: 1997 vs. 2001
The ‘97 and ‘01 teams were fresh on Auriemma’s mind this month when he was asked to consider what allows teams to rally around a teammate’s injury and not let such curveballs derail them.
In ‘97, the Huskies “were the best team in America by 100 miles,” Auriemma said, sporting an undefeated record with only one game up to that point decided by single figures. But when Ralph tore an ACL, “the entire team reacted horribly to that. ... They actually reacted as if someone has passed away, and it cost us in the NCAA Tournament,” Auriemma continued. “We ended up losing in the Final Eight [91-81 to a 10-loss Tennessee team] where we could have won had we handled it differently.”
Ralph’s teammates realized that contemporaneously, too.
“We didn’t handle it well when it happened to Shea,” Sales said the following year.
“We were scared, playing not to lose,” added Duran. “Then we barely escaped against Illinois [in the Sweet 16, 78-73] and there was just so much pressure on us.”
Fast-forward from that, and Auriemma thought his team handled it “exceptionally well” when Abrosimova and Ralph were sidelined for the remainder of the 2001 season. The team even felt the difference in the moment.
“We just didn’t do it right [in ‘97]. With this group I think we’ll be OK,” Auriemma said at the time. “In fact, we’re going to be OK. There is no two ways about it. We’re going to be fine.”
And they were, largely behind the emergence of freshman Diana Taurasi, whom The Courant described at the time as “the patch in the fabric. The player that Auriemma had used to stitch over the loss of Abrosimova and Ralph and keep the team moving.”
Taurasi wasn’t quite ready for the moment in the national semifinals, infamously going 1-for-15 as the Huskies fell to eventual national champion Notre Dame, 90-75. But she did enough to help get them there in the first place, no small feat.
“I think a lot of people doubted us, especially when Shea and Svet went down,” Bird said after the Huskies beat Louisiana Tech to advance to the Final Four. “Picking up the newspapers, we would read things about how we didn’t have the players to get it done. The only people who knew we would make it back to the Final Four were the people in our locker room.
“It’s hard to explain because of what we went through this year. I think this one’s even more special.”
Last time this shorthanded: 2013-14
One of UConn’s six undefeated seasons was accomplished with a very short roster. Two future No. 3 WNBA draft picks, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck, got hurt early in the season, leaving the Huskies with just seven scholarship players and two walk-ons for about a month. At times in the season when other players got banged up, they’d only be able to field six players on scholarship.
In the grand scheme, it didn’t really matter how many players the Huskies were without: They stampeded over the competition in the regular season, with only one game decided by fewer than 17 points. They may have been shorthanded, but they had the likes of Breanna Stewart, Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson, Moriah Jefferson, Saniya Chong and Kiah Stokes to more than make up for it.
Tuck (knee) and Mosqueda-Lewis (elbow) eventually returned, though Tuck didn’t last long before being ruled out for the rest of the season. Finally (mostly) healthy, the Huskies breezed through the postseason, with their narrowest win by 15 points, on their way to the program’s ninth national title.
What does this mean for the 2021-22 Huskies?
So what can the current Huskies take from all of this? On one hand, the Huskies’ situation in 2021 isn’t as dire as those of other teams: Their star player, Bueckers, won’t be out all season, expected to return in February. Her injury occurred early enough in the season that the team has plenty of time to find ways to win without her. UConn should soon get Fudd and Mühl back, replenishing the depth in the backcourt. But as the ′98-99 example showed, it can take time to re-incorporate players into the rotation.
Maybe the Huskies aren’t talented enough to pull a 2013-14 run where it looked like they barely blinked an eye. But they have more time to figure things out than they in 1997-1999. Could Fudd be a Taurasi-like figure who steps up earlier than expected to help her team achieve its pre-injury goals?
Having been there for it all, Auriemma believes maturity will make all the difference down the stretch.
“I think it depends on the maturity of the players, their level of confidence, their accepting a challenge, ‘Hey, now it’s my time, regardless of who I think I am or what I think I am. Whatever the case may be, now’s the time for me to step up and prove why I’m at Connecticut,’” he said earlier this month. “Some teams are better at that than others. Some kids are better at that than others.”
What sorts of players are this season’s Huskies, including Fudd and Mühl, who have yet to be tested? We’re about to find out over the next six weeks.
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.