November 17, 2023 

Bueckers propels UConn to emphatic victory over Maryland

Huskies step up in Azzi Fudd's absence

STORRS, Conn. — With under two minutes to play in the first quarter of a ranked team matchup against Maryland, UConn guard Paige Bueckers took an inadvertent finger to the eye from a Terrapin defender just outside the three point line. Bueckers, playing in her first regular season game at Gampel Pavilion since missing last season with an ACL injury, fell hard to the ground, clutching her face. The UConn home crowd fell silent, holding a collective breath while their superstar was checked on by head coach Geno Auriemma, associate head coach Chris Dailey and the UConn training staff. Bueckers eventually walked off the court to the bench, squinting out of a visibly swollen right eye.

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As Bueckers iced her eye on the bench, she peered up anxiously at her coach, waiting for the green light to check back into the game. Her teammate, junior guard Azzi Fudd, sat a few seats down. Fudd was unable to help out, wearing street clothes on the bench after injuring her knee during practice on Tuesday. As the first quarter ended, Bueckers continued to watch from the bench as the Huskies took a narrow 14–11 lead into the second quarter.

“[Paige] attracts hits,” said Auriemma. “She gets hit a lot. But it’s never bothered her. It’s never slowed her down. It’s never made her change. If anything she wants to play so bad that I think that whenever there’s a incident like that she comes back maybe even more determined. Somehow. She doesn’t want to go to the bench.”

When she checked back into the game at the 7:40 mark of the second quarter, Bueckers received a thunderous applause from a sold-out Gampel Pavilion crowd. Minutes later, with the Huskies trailing Maryland by one point, Bueckers was issued a technical foul after a physical tussle for a rebound against Maryland guard Shyanne Sellers. After two free throws, Sellers put Maryland up 25–22.

Following that technical foul on Bueckers, something shifted for the Huskies. During the final five minutes of the half, UConn completely took control of the game, accelerating to a 20–2 run, with Bueckers contributing 11 of those points. Bueckers was all over the court — pulling down rebounds, getting steals on the defensive end and driving to the basket aggressively. After the game, the All-American guard referred back to the moment she got hit in the eye as a turning point.

“I was pretty fired up. I wanted to look more black and blue so I can look how it felt. But yeah, I think ever since I came back [from ACL injury] … I’ve gained the confidence in my life where I’m able to withstand that, kind of embrace it,” Bueckers said postgame. “I know teams are gonna play extremely physical with me — especially coming off injuries — and they want to test me and make sure that I’m alright. And I think as a team, we need to embrace physicality and toughness. So anytime situations like that happen, [you] can either respond and shy away from it or embrace it.”

UConn guard Paige Bueckers points out her swollen eye to a referee during the UConn’s win over Maryland. (Photo Credit: Domeinc Allegra)

Bueckers’ inspired play pushed the Huskies into a different gear. The Huskies were all over Maryland on the defensive end, shutting down everything the Terrapins tried to execute on offense. UConn notched nine blocks and 16 steals on the day, forcing Maryland into 27 turnovers. After giving up 92 points in a loss to N.C. State on Sunday, the Huskies recovered with stifling defensive intensity.

“I think everybody who watched the [N.C. State game], we were very disappointed and embarrassed with our defensive effort. I can’t remember the last time a UConn team gave up 92 points,” Bueckers said. “So there was a huge emphasis in practice and just as a collective unit; we never want to show an effort like that again on the defensive end. So it started with us older guys and then the the younger guys brought…the intensity on defense and [had] a pride and a will to want to defend.”

While the Huskies held the Wolfpack to just 48 points on 26% shooting from the field, they also delivered on the offense end. UConn finished the game with 80 points behind double-digits scoring efforts from Bueckers (24 points), senior forward Aaliyah Edwards (12 points) and freshmen guards KK Arnold (12 points) and Ashlynn Shade (10 points). It was an extraordinary display by a team still finding its footing in these early weeks of the season, and demonstrated the depth on Auriemma’s bench.

Looking ahead

Losing perhaps the sharpest shooter in the country in Azzi Fudd — for any amount of time — definitely impacts the Huskies. She’s the type of player whose talent can’t be replaced and, in her absence, Auriemma will rely on other personnel to mind the gap. Freshmen Arnold and Shade will need to demonstrate confidence in stepping into more active scoring roles. At the same time, wing Aubrey Griffin (who pulled down 13 rebounds on Thursday) and freshmen forward Ice Brady will need to be aggressive in boxing out and rebounding to back up Edwards in the post.

“We need the freshmen to do exactly what they did tonight,” Auriemma said. “You don’t have — however long [Fudd is sidelined] — you don’t have anybody plugging in and [saying] okay, go out there [and] shoot it like Azzi, go out there and give us what she can give us. So you’re gonna have to get in different ways. So alright, Aubrey tonight gave it to us in a different way. Ashlynn gave it to us a little different, KK gave it to us a little different way. And that’s the only way I think that we can make up for [Azzi’s production].”

UConn guard KK Arnold celebrates during UConn’s game against Maryland. (Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra)

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After two seasons plagued by injuries, the Huskies have gained some experience in the ‘next player up’ mentality.

“I addressed this in the locker room after the game I said, ‘you know, over the last three years, it seems like there’s always something — there’s always something that we have to deal with,'” Auriemma said. “Sometimes it’s minor. This one might be minor. Sometimes it’s minor. Sometimes it’s major. But it seems like we’ve always handled it really, really, really well. We’ve always been pretty resilient — for us to win 31 games last year given what we went through. They respond you know, they don’t pout, they really don’t. So [I say] hey, we’re just going to have to figure this one out for however long this is — whether it’s today or tomorrow, you know?”

UConn figured it out on Thursday, dominating a talented Maryland team to improve to 2–1 on the young season. It’s not certain when Fudd will return to the lineup for the Huskies, but its clear this team isn’t willing to let her absence derail their season.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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