Nov. 19—STORRS — Nika Mühl is learning lessons that point guards for the UConn women's basketball team have been taught since before she was born.
The Huskies' point guard — whether it was Wade Trophy winners such as Jennifer Rizzotti, Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi, or fellow Nancy Lieberman Award winners Renee Montgomery, Moriah Jefferson or Paige Bueckers — under coach Geno Auriemma is responsible for anything that goes wrong.
Now that responsibility falls on Mühl.
"Coach always blames me for everything so it's not anything I'm not used to," the junior said with a laugh on Friday before practice at the Werth Champions Center. "I wouldn't say it's difficult. Our seniors when I was a sophomore always took the time and took responsibility for our mistakes. Watching them do that I feel like I understood why that was so important. It's something that needs to be done and it's part of being a good teammate, too."
Mühl and fifth-ranked UConn will go for a second straight Top 10-win on Sunday at the XL Center when they entertain No. 10 North Carolina State in a rematch of March's classic NCAA Bridgeport Regional final.
The season-ending knee injury to Bueckers has put Mühl in a tough situation but the native of Zagreb, Croatia has responded with the toughness she takes to the court.
After wins over Northeastern and No. 3 Texas, Mühl leads the Big East in assists (8.0) and steals (4.5) while ranking fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.2).
"The biggest growth I would definitely say is the responsibility part," Mühl said. "I'm taking more responsibility for my mistakes, for other people's mistakes, the mistakes of the team.
"There have been ups and downs. There have been good days and bad days. Sometimes it tends to get overwhelming, which is obvious. But it's not something that I didn't mentally prepare myself for. It's been overwhelming and rewarding at the same time and that's a good thing. Pressure is privilege. The more pressure, the better."
Mühl, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, matched her career high with six steals against Northeastern and tied her career high with nine assists against Texas. While it's a very small sample, she's also 2-for-3 shooting from 3-point land.
The intangibles she brings — her energy and effort, her aggressiveness and intensity — have been just what the Huskies have needed.
"She's always had a huge voice but this year it's bigger," UConn guard Caroline Ducharme said. "We all look to her. We all follow her."
But Mühl has been Mühl at times even in her strong start.
After her 3-pointer gave UConn its first double-figure lead early in the third quarter against the Longhorns Monday, the Huskies forced a turnover. With Azzi Fudd bringing the ball up the floor, Mühl set an unnecessary screen that flattened Texas' Sonya Morris and the offensive foul was called.
The Huskies then went three minutes without scoring.
"She couldn't help herself because it had been 10 or 15 minutes since she had punched anyone, so she whacks a kid with an illegal screen just for the hell of it," Auriemma said.
"She still has her moments," he added. "There's a mature approach that maybe wasn't there a couple of years ago. The things she used to do six times we cut down to two, maybe. I believe there is a growing sense that she knows what I want and she knows what she has to do so I get what I want. Right now she's the person everyone gravitates to."
As far as accepting blame for the things that go wrong, Mühl accepts it.
In most cases, that is.
"She's actually better at taking responsibility for what someone else did than taking responsibility for what she just did," Auriemma said. "I comment on, 'What was that?' She'll say, 'That was my fault. I should have called it out earlier.' She'll do it even if it wasn't her fault.
"Then when I say, 'What was that when you smack some kid in the middle of a 12-0 run to stop the momentum?' It's, 'That wasn't me, that was Lou (Lopez Sénéchal).' She'll take the hit for someone else. We have to get her to be more introspective."
UConn (2-0) and North Carolina State are different than they were in March when Bueckers scored 15 of her 27 points in the extra sessions of a 91-87 double-overtime win that sent the Huskies to their record 14th straight Final Four and denied the Wolfpack their first national semifinal bid since 1998.
North Carolina State (4-0) has won its games by an average of 41.8 points. Eight players average at least 7.0 points per game led by guard Diamond Johnson.
"They lost three kids that played a lot of basketball but they added a couple of transfers who add a lot to what they're doing as far as how they play," Auriemma said. "They're a team that you expect to be playing late in the NCAA tournament."
Sunday's contest is the first regular season meeting between the schools since Dec. 29, 2003 when Taurasi led UConn to an 87-53 rout in Hartford. The Huskies are scheduled to play in Raleigh in 2023-24.
For Mühl, Sunday's showdown is a chance to build on what she's started."What I'm most happy about is the way our team is organized," Mühl said. "Being the point guard, I like to feel it starts with me, the energy and how our offense has been flowing. I love the way it looks."
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.