Regrouping UConn women’s basketball team looking to stay present as it moves forward from Oregon loss

·6 min read

It’s been a season unlike any other for the UConn women’s basketball team.

Five players expected to play huge roles in the rotation have missed time due to injuries or COVID-19. Four Big East games have been canceled with no word on whether they’ll be rescheduled. And for the first time since the 2012-13 season, the Huskies have four losses before the NCAA Tournament, the latest a 72-59 throttling at the hands of Oregon on Monday.

And the Huskies aren’t in the clear yet. Senior guard Christyn Williams (COVID-19 protocols) will remain out this weekend and freshman guard Azzi Fudd is progressing, but still has yet to join the team in practices. Just when UConn had started to learn how to play without Paige Bueckers, the team was forced once again to learn how to play without a key piece, and one of their few remaining go-to scorers.

What’s this all mean for the Huskies? For now, the present is only thing they can afford to focus on, getting better each day with the people they have, until they can reload and try to become the team so many thought they could be. Task No. 1 is to take care of business Friday versus Seton Hall (8-7, 3-4 Big East) at Gampel Pavilion.

For a program with championship standards every year, the Huskies’ recent bout of adversity, and losses, has been especially tough to deal with.

“I think personally, it’s just as physically as emotionally challenging,” said graduate student Dorka Juhász.

But dwelling too much on past mistakes or future possibilities — like what do UConn’s issues mean come March — isn’t helpful either. Juhász, senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa and head coach Geno Auriemma expressed that Thursday.

“Sometimes it’s good to look at both. After these losses, thinking about how much we can grow from this, as an opportunity to actually learn about our flaws that could come out in March, when it’s the most important,” Juhász said “But also, we just have to play so many games, we’ve just got to stay in the present.

“It’s very early to think about, ‘What’s it going to be [like] in March, what seed are we going to be.’ Right now, it’s not important. What’s important is how we can stand up from this loss, play a game [Friday], be our best version, and just keep improving and work on that team chemistry now that we have so many different lineups.”

Auriemma has built his program to operate that way regardless of the expectations, the focal point day to day is to get better.

“Now with all this that’s happened, it’s even more so ‘we need to get a lot better today.’” he said. “We need to get better. We need to play well Friday night. We don’t have the luxury of thinking ‘Hey, we’ll be all right when these guys get back’ or ‘Hey, let’s get ready for March.’ We don’t think like that. We just think about ‘how do we get better and how do win on Friday night.’”

In Auriemma’s eyes, the problems (aside from the injury issues) are all fixable. That’s a good thing.

“As a group, we have to stay strong mentally because I think that’s where the mistakes come from, that’s where [missing] easy shots come from. Right now it’s more of a mental toughness thing than it is a physical toughness thing,” he said. “And the only way you can do that is to be put in that situation enough times where you have to fight your way out of it. There’s no easy way out of this. I don’t think there’s a team in the country that’s had to deal with what we’ve dealt with this year.”

Here’s what else you need to know about the matchup:

Site: Gampel Pavilion

Time: 7 p.m.

Series: UConn leads, 54-10

Last meeting: No. 2 UConn 74, Seton Hall 49, Dec. 3, 2021, in South Orange, N.J.

TV: SNY (Meghan Culmo, Allen Bestwick, Maria Marino)

Stream: In-market SNY viewers with access to the network can watch via the NBC Sports app: http://stream.nbcsports.com/rsn/sny. Out-of-market viewers can watch on the Fox Sports App or at https://www.foxsports.com/ as well as on the FOX Now app or at www.fox.com/sports. The games might not appear on those sites until right around tipoff.

Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network on 97.9 ESPN (Bob Joyce, Debbie Fiske)

Seton Hall probable starters, sixth man:

Lauren Park-Lane, G, 5-6, Jr.; Mya Jackson, G, 5-7, Jr.; Andra Espinoza-Hunter, G/F, 5-11, Gr.; Sidney Cooks, F, 6-4, R-Sr.; Mya Bembry, F, 6-1, Jr.; Katie Armstrong, G/F, 6-2, Gr.

UConn probable starters, sixth man:

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, F, 6-5, Sr.; Dorka Juhász, F, 6-5, Gr.; Evina Westbrook, G, 6-0, R-Sr.; Nika Mühl, G, 5-10, So.; Caroline Ducharme, G, 6-2, Fr.; Aaliyah Edwards, F, 6-3, So.

The matchup

UConn’s offense: Ducharme has stepped up the most in Bueckers’ absence, averaging 16.7 points in the last seven games. Nelson-Ododa has also been a steadying force, putting up double figures each of the last three games, including 17 versus Oregon. UConn is averaging 68.7 points per game without Bueckers.

UConn’s defense: The Huskies’ strong suit this season, although they struggled against Oregon as the game went on Monday. In December, the Huskies limited Seton Hall to 27.6% shooting from the field and just 5-31 on 3s.

Seton Hall’s offense: The Pirates average 68.8 points per game on 40.7% shooting including 32.7% on 3s. Park-Lane leads the team with 18.1 points per game, while Espinoza-Hunter is behind her with 16.7. Espinoza-Hunter, who started her career at UConn before transferring to Mississippi State and then Seton Hall, missed the first meeting this season between the teams due to a suspension.

Seton Hall’s defense: The Pirates’ defense allows more points (70.5 per game) than their offense scores. Seton Hall opponents shoot 43.1% from the field, including 28.6% on 3s. Cooks is the team’s top rebounder (7.7 per game), but UConn should have an edge on the glass.

UConn keys: Don’t let Park-Lane get going, contain Pirates at the 3-point line. Take advantage of size in lane. Get going in transition. Limit turnovers and other self-inflicted wounds

Players to watch: Auriemma bemoaned his team’s poor guard play Monday at Oregon. How will that shorthanded unit, specifically Westbrook and Mühl, fare Friday?

About Seton Hall’s coach: In his ninth season in South Orange, Anthony Bozzella has led The Hall to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2015 and 2016. Last season, amid much COVID-19-disruption, the Pirates were one of the first teams out from making the NCAA Tournament and ultimately declined a WNIT bid.

Seton Hall’s mascot: The Pirate

Famous alumni: Basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale, CNN co-founder Robert J. Wussler, actress/singer Naturi Naughton

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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