Losses are the largest learning opportunity, and Connecticut is experiencing it for the first time in a season in which many thought the Huskies would stumble earlier in the schedule.
“The next best thing to winning the game was we kind of got a glimpse of, like, what could happen if we don’t make up for whatever it is missing,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said after a 74-60 loss to then-No. 7 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, on Sunday. It was the largest Huskies margin of loss in the rivalry since 2004, per ESPN Stats and Information.
The biggest thing missing was Azzi Fudd, their superstar shooting guard who came into the game averaging 24 points largely against strong competition. She has been the guiding reason UConn rose to a No. 3 ranking and was 3-for-3 against ranked squads in the nonconference schedule before the Irish.
Yet, the Huskies’ major concern has long been what happens when Fudd isn’t dropping a 20-piece or carrying a half for UConn to mount a good lead or build back into a game. The Huskies couldn’t make up for not having her on the floor when she exited with a potential injury, nor could they make up for a fifth consecutive game without graduate forward Dorka Juhász. Not to mention they planned on having former national player of the year Paige Bueckers leading the offense and freshman Ice Brady beginning to cement her status.
UConn struggled against the Fighting Irish before Fudd exited in the first quarter after Aaliyah Edwards fell into her right knee on a screen. The sophomore came back to play a total of 13 minutes before the halftime break, when she was benched for what Auriemma said were precautionary reasons. The team announced Tuesday that Fudd would miss three to six weeks with a right knee injury.
It was in the 2021 game against Notre Dame that Bueckers sustained a non-contact leg injury in the final minutes of an 18-point winning margin. She underwent surgery and did not return until Feb. 25. Not having Fudd's production to bail the Huskies out put a spotlight on what needs to be fixed, particularly if she’s out longer term.
A bad start sinks Huskies
Defense has often fueled UConn’s starts and eventual wins against top-ranked teams in Texas, NC State and Iowa. The Huskies average nine steals per game and use them early for transition buckets that build a lead.
In five of the six games before Notre Dame, a Husky swiped a steal within the first few possessions and by the time the clock hit about 7:30. The only exception was the opener against Kutztown when Nika Muhl didn’t steal one until 6:19, but UConn quickly added three more to hers as it began to pull away.
Against Notre Dame, the first and only steal of the first quarter came at 3:45 by Lou Lopez Senechal. She turned it into a fastbreak 3-pointer to take the lead back, 11-9. The Huskies finished the game with a season-low four.
Defensively, UConn didn’t have an early answer for point guard Olivia Miles. Miles scored 13 to fuel a 18-13 lead and set the tone. UConn struggled offensively to get many of its shots to go, going 5-of-18 in the quarter, though it did hit 3-of-7 3s.
“You want to get those first five minutes where you feel like you’re on a good pace, you’re on a roll, a lot of people are touching the ball [and] you’re getting the great shots,” Auriemma said after the 98-53 win against Providence. “Because that will carry over.”
The shooting struggles continued on the same course for UConn in the second quarter as the Irish developed a more balanced attack around Miles. The Fighting Irish went into halftime with a 41-24 lead, too much for UConn to overcome even though the Huskies won the second half, 36-33.
Huskies couldn’t buy paint points
Auriemma was clear after the dominating win against NC State that the team’s success follows that of the paint.
“Our post players are going to decide the fate of our season,” Auriemma said in Hartford that afternoon. “People are going to struggle shooting the ball because they always do. At some point, the ball isn’t going to go in the basket as much.”
It didn’t go into the basket as much against Notre Dame — a 36.8% clip was its first below 50% this season — and UConn didn’t have the help in the post it needed to overcome that. The loss of Juhász was felt immensely in this one as the Irish won the paint, 46-16, and the glass, 39-26. They were 31-19 in defensive rebounds.
UConn had a season-low 15 assists, half of its season-high total in an impressive win against the offensive powerhouse of Iowa. The ball didn’t move around as much, resulting in a season-high 11 points for Muhl alongside a season-low five assists. It snapped her streak of four games in double-digit assists.
Edwards had 14 points, but only five rebounds in a tough matchup with Notre Dame’s Lauren Ebo. And Lopez Senechal led the team with 21 points.
Outside of those three, no one scored more than five points. Aubrey Griffin pulled in six rebounds, almost all in the first half, but was 1-of-12 and Notre Dame tempted her to shoot from range.
“We just didn’t have enough scorers on the floor and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them,” Auriemma said. “Notre Dame played really inspired. ... We just weren’t able to keep up with them scoring-wise.”
Edwards, Muhl and Lopez Senechal all played 38 or 40 minutes out of almost necessity, which Auriemma called unsustainable. Scoring might continue to be a problem underscored by an even shorter bench if Fudd and Juhász remain unavailable or limited. Juhász participated in the first workout that included any contact on Friday and the team will see how she does this week.
With or without them available, a good start and presence in the paint should be their focus heading into another Sunday of top competition.