Shortly after Paige Bueckers went down with a non-contact injury in the final minute of UConn’s Dec. 5 home game against Notre Dame while leading by 18 points, Geno Auriemma told reporters Bueckers was still in the game partly because “she’s a pain in the ass to have on the bench because all she does is complain about why she’s not playing.” But he also admitted, “I don’t like our team without her on the court.”
One week and two Bueckers-less games later, an ugly loss followed by an uplifting win, we’ve gotten a glimpse of who UConn is without their star player. The Huskies’ 57-44 loss to Georgia Tech was the first time since 2006 that a UConn squad had scored fewer than 45 points in a game and the first time since 2012 that they’d lost to an unranked opponent. It also dropped UConn to No. 7 in the AP poll this week, their lowest ranking since 2007.
After the loss, Auriemma told the media, “We’re disorganized as a group right now, from the coaching on down, everybody. There’s just no sense of [having] a plan of how we’re going to execute, how we’re going to get a bucket, who’s going to get it for us.”
Auriemma and his staff are no doubt hoping this marks their low point of the season, especially now that they are down to eight active players after two entered the transfer portal and Azzi Fudd, Nika Mühl and Aubrey Griffin are out with their own respective injuries. All four injured players are expected to make full recoveries this season, with Bueckers’ return timeline being the longest. The sophomore is expected to miss eight weeks as she recovers from a successful surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear.
The diminished squad followed up the Georgia Tech loss with a much-needed confidence boost when they beat UCLA 71-61 last Saturday. But their biggest challenges are on the horizon, the first of which comes Sunday against No. 6 Louisville’s strong defensive squad.
“I think the biggest thing that’s an issue is consistency. Just because we see them put it together at the end of the UCLA game, they’re going to have to try to do that coming off an exam week against a better team in Louisville,” says Alexa Philippou, who covers the program around the clock for Connecticut’s Hartford Courant.
With three other top-ten matchups on the calendar before Bueckers is expected back, the Huskies’ response to this identity crisis will be put to the test repeatedly. Here’s what we know so far about who UConn is without the reigning National Player of the Year.
Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa are the reason there hasn’t been a complete implosion upon losing Bueckers. They are all senior starters who have played top-tier college ball without Bueckers before. Yes, they all need to step up their on-court performance, but the fact this trio of senior leadership is in place is saving the Huskies from complete disaster.
Westbrook, a redshirt senior who played her first two seasons at Tennessee, will take over as offensive facilitator while Bueckers and back-up point guard Mühl are both out. It was clear from the start of the Georgia Tech game that Westbrook is ready and able to fill this role; she notched five assists and committed just one turnover when they went to the locker room tied at the half. And against UCLA, the 6-foot Oregonian who played point guard until transferring to UConn, tallied another seven assists along with 17 points and one turnover for the game.
“She’s always been a good facilitator even if she wasn’t the primary point guard on this team,” says Philippou. “I thought she looked so much more aggressive in trying to look for her own shot and to get to the rim against UCLA. That’s why she was able to single-handedly keep UConn in the game early. She can’t just facilitate in that role. She’s going to have to put some of the offensive scoring load on her shoulders and she did that really well against UCLA.”
It was when Westbrook took a more passive approach in ball management in the second half against Georgia Tech that UConn’s offense was at its worst, scoring only four points in the paint and shooting 21.4 percent from the field.
Part of that responsibility lies with Williams. There’s no doubt the team’s second-leading scorer behind Bueckers feels enormous pressure to get the ball in the hoop for her team, but so far that pressure is causing her to force it instead of waiting for the cracks to reveal themselves. And with her elite ability to get to the rim, hit the mid-range jumper or pull-up outside the arc, the guard can exploit even the tiniest opening.
Since arriving in Storrs as the nation’s top recruit in 2018, Williams has played in every single game but one and started in all but two. After scoring 13 points on 31.6 percent shooting, and going only 1-for-8 from 3 with four turnovers against Georgia Tech, Williams had a similar stat line versus UCLA. The difference in the win was she hit two of her three 3-point attempts, a good sign that her decision-making might be recovering from the heightened pressure.
“Historically, Christyn has gone through these ruts, these highs and lows of confidence. We saw that her sophomore year, we saw that her junior year,” Philippou recalls. “I think what was most notable about the UCLA game was that she found a way to get herself back into it in the second half, which maybe a younger Christyn Williams wouldn’t have done. Maybe she would have shut down all game.”
It won’t be surprising if the player with the biggest production increase in Bueckers’ absence isn’t a guard at all, but instead Nelson-Ododa, UConn’s senior center. After a quiet start to the season, Nelson-Ododa has shifted into a higher gear in terms of initiative and confidence on the offensive end of the court. She averaged just 4.25 shot attempts in UConn’s first four games this season, but is now averaging nine over their last four matchups, resulting in double-digit scoring in all four contests. Against UCLA, she was just two rebounds shy of a third double-double in a row. Her near 60 percent shooting percentage is the highest on the team.
“I don’t think Olivia Nelson-Ododa is a player who is going to be putting up Aaliyah Boston-esque numbers on a daily basis, especially against the best teams,” says Philippou. “But I think starting in that South Carolina game, we did see a different player than we saw most of last season even. She just played with an intensity and a focus, really a tenacity, that hasn’t always been part of her game.”
If UConn’s season had gone according to plan, freshmen like Caroline Ducharme and Amari DeBerry would have been fighting for scraps of minutes on the floor. Now, with a significantly reduced roster, these youngsters, especially 2021 fifth overall recruit Ducharme, will get much more playing time.
Caroline. Ducharme. pic.twitter.com/bVxDGHbyFI— UConn Women’s Basketball (@UConnWBB) December 5, 2021
Caroline. Ducharme. pic.twitter.com/bVxDGHbyFI
The learning curve will be steep, as evidenced by Ducharme’s performance against Georgia Tech, where she missed a couple of easy buckets to go 1-for-5 from the field with three turnovers. But instead of working through those mistakes gradually over the course of the season, her development will be fast-tracked. Against UCLA she improved to 30.8 percent shooting with 14 points, two assists, two blocks, a steal and only one turnover. She also hit all four of her free throws on a night when the rest of her team was just 50 percent from the line.
“Caroline Ducharme, pretty much guaranteed, would not have been playing this much if all these injuries hadn’t happened,” Philippou says. “She’s looked better and better, and in this last game in particular, she finally looked like that player that Geno’s been saying he’s had in practice.”
The other freshman Philippou thinks could gain from these unfortunate circumstances is 2021 top overall recruit Azzi Fudd, who’s expected to return from a foot injury shortly after the holidays. After all the hype surrounding Bueckers and Fudd’s on-court chemistry, it seems counterintuitive to imagine Bueckers’ absence as somehow boosting Fudd’s game. But recalling the freshman’s four-game start to the season, Philippou notes, “She was just too hesitant. I think she was overthinking things. It seemed like she was a little bit of a perfectionist and she didn’t want to make a mistake. But she’s going to be asked to take on a bigger role with Paige out … They’re going to be asking her to be more aggressive on offense and if she can get that going, then maybe that puts her on a faster track than before.”
After Auriemma raised the alarm bells, he even sounded optimistic after the UCLA game that UConn could come through this better prepared for a deep tournament run than they were before.
“Now when Paige and the rest of our players do come back, there’s more people in the party instead of outside hoping to get in, and feel like they belong here and can contribute not just when they have to, but they’ll be able to contribute as part of the natural flow of our offense,” the coach said.
With only a two-game sample size since Bueckers went down and a forthcoming stream of other injured players to reintegrate with the team, UConn’s identity will be a new puzzle to solve each week. But if the Huskies can keep the rest of their roster healthy, they have the senior leadership necessary to keep them afloat on the scoreboard and in the locker room and the underclassmen who can exploit this opportunity for the betterment of the team in the long run.
The next step in UConn’s journey begins against Louisville on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.