March 13, 2024 

Inside UConn’s dominant BIG EAST Tournament performance

'Very, very few players have impacted UConn basketball the way Paige has'

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The UConn Huskies completely and utterly steamrolled their opponents en route to a 22nd BIG EAST Tournament championship — the program’s fourth straight since returning to the conference in 2020-21, its 11th straight counting the seven in the American Athletic Conference (2014-2020). While that level of dominance may suggest that the conference tournament win was business as usual for the program, there was something “special” about this one.

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The Huskies entered the conference tournament with just eight available players — six players were unable to compete due to injury. The injury woes that the Huskies have faced over the past three seasons are well-documented, but this season’s personnel limitations were especially harsh. To make matters even worse, UConn’s All-BIG EAST forward Aaliyah Edwards played just two of twelve quarters during the tournament, exiting the tournament after sustaining a broken nose during the quarterfinals against Providence.

“I mean, every time we win, it’s a different story,” said UConn senior guard Nika Mühl postgame. “Every tournament championship is with different people, whether it’s on the staff, on the team. It’s just a whole different story, whole different vibe. For me personally, this might be the most special one, not just because it’s my last, but it’s also because we have been dealt the worst cards ever, and we just never stopped believing in ourselves.”

Despite a season of almost unimaginable adversity, the Huskies not only persevered, but dominated the conference tournament. Across three games, UConn outscored opponents 222-124, overwhelming the competition by a 32.7 point average margin of victory. It was an emotional weekend full of disciplined team basketball from women’s college basketball’s most heralded program. Let’s dive into some of the highlights.

A legendary performance

Last season, UConn senior guard Paige Bueckers watched from the bench as her teammates celebrated a 21st BIG EAST Tournament title. While she stood with teammates under the confetti at Mohegan Sun Arena, it was obvious that, for her, the celebration was bittersweet because she didn’t have a chance to contribute to the victory.

This season, as she accepted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy from BIG EAST officials with a piece of confetti nestled into her braid, Bueckers beamed with the pride and joy of a kid who just loves to ball.

“A year ago I would have done anything to be in basketball shoes instead of streetwear just playing in the most important month of basketball … I just wanted to embrace it and have fun because I just missed it so much the entire year last year,” Bueckers said in her address to the crowd postgame.

Paige returned to the court in epic fashion, playing an absolutely inspired tournament of basketball. Across three games, the 2021 national player of the year averaged 27.7 ppg on 51.7% shooting from the field (50% from three). She also added 8.3 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game, 4.0 blocks per game and 3.0 steals per game.

“This is Paige at her best, in totality,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “She almost single-handedly took us to the Final Four and the national championship game [in 2022], and it was only two years ago. How quickly people forget, right?”

Paige Bueckers celebrates with a yell and a clenched fist
UConn guard Paige Bueckers was awarded the Most Outstanding Player award for the 2024 BIG EAST Tournament. (Photo Credit | Domenic Allegra)

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When asked to address where Paige’s collegiate legacy places her among the legends of Husky lore, Auriemma pointed to her ability to make those around her better and carry a team on her shoulders.

“I go by this criteria: how many players have I coached that impact the team in as many ways as Paige does, and how many teams rely so much — how many of my teams — on one player to do so much for them? And I would say that that list probably starts with Diana Taurasi and Paige Bueckers,” Auriemma said. “And no disrespect to any of those others, but they played on uber-talented teams with lots of WNBA superstars and Olympic legends.

“So whether she’s a legend or a national champion yet, very, very few have impacted UConn basketball the way Paige has.”

A huge step forward

When UConn senior Aaliyah Edwards left the game in the early third quarter of the BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinal, redshirt freshman Ice Brady was the next woman up. Brady, who missed all of last season due to injury, has struggled at times to adjust to the collegiate game. Her production this season in 17.4 minutes per game hasn’t been as efficient as was perhaps expected from a high-level recruit, averaging just 4.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. In the semifinal and final games of the BIG EAST Tournament, Brady played all 40 minutes and scored 10 and 13 points, respectively. Her play earned her a spot on the All-Tournament team.

“I don’t know where we would be without Ice, especially this tournament,” said teammate Nika Mühl. “But I’m so, so, so proud of her because only we as a team know how hard-headed she is, how stubborn she is … Only we as a team know what kind of milestone she accomplished today.

“To see her growth, to just be a part of it, I mean, it’s amazing. I’ve never seen that in my life, honestly. She’s grown so much over the last couple days, and I’m so happy for her because she’s a great player, but sometimes you need to remind her what kind of great player she is. This past three games, she didn’t need no reminding, because she knew it, and she stepped up when we needed her the most. And that takes some maturity. That takes some — that takes everything.”

Brady’s play is a good sign for the Huskies, who lack depth in the post. All season long Edwards held it down for the Huskies, and Brady could fade into the background with relatively low stakes. When Edwards left the tournament, though, Brady had no choice but to step up to meet the moment.

UConn forward Ice Brady drives to the basket
UConn forward Ice Brady was named to the BIG EAST Tournament All-Tournament team. (Photo Credit | Domenic Allegra)

“I always want to see whether Ice is going to compete,” Auriemma said. “She doesn’t have to do everything right. She doesn’t have to be perfect. But I want to see what her competitive spirit is out there …The skill level, that’ll take care of itself down the road. I just thought she didn’t compete. She was non-competitive, and that really bothered me.

“I realized that I needed to be much harder on her. I needed to demand more from her. There were trying times leading up to this weekend over the last two months. There were times in practice where she reverted back to her old self, and she paid the price for it. But those didn’t last very long like they used to, and she put the work in. She put the work in before practice, after practice, and it’s paid off. Like I tell these kids, there’s a reason why we recruited you. So I hope I’m not wrong. I always believed that she had it in her.”

When Edwards returns to the lineup for the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies will have more confidence in Brady’s abilities to be her backup, holding it down when Edwards is on the bench. Brady took several steps forward during the BIG EAST Tournament, and UConn is a better team for it.

“When Aaliyah does come back, we have more good players on our team than before Aaliyah got hurt, for sure,” Auriemma said.

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A teary farewell

On Friday, UConn senior Nika Mühl announced via social media that this is her last season as a Husky. After Monday’s conference tournament final, Mühl finally had the chance to address her decision with the media.

“I feel like it’s been such an emotional year for me, what this program has done for me. They took me and my team to Croatia to play in front of my people, brought my sister over to play in Gampel [Pavilion], and then just the senior night. I mean, the whole year was too emotional for me, so many things going on.

“And I’m forever grateful and thankful that I was able to share those moments with the whole team. And I’m so thankful to Coach and the whole coaching staff and the whole program, everybody, to be able to make that happen for me. And I just felt like with all of that, it was the best year of my life. I just felt like I have given my all to this program. It’s just a feeling, when it’s time for you to leave.”

Mühl ended her final BIG EAST game with a bang, passing Diana Taurasi on UConn’s all-time assist record list. She now ranks second to Moriah Jefferson and needs just nine more assists to become the program leader.

“Well, she should get it,” Paige Bueckers said postgame.

When reflecting on their careers at UConn, the Bueckers and Mühl couldn’t hold back tears reflecting on their special relationship together and the memories they’ve shared.

“Playing with Nika has just been a joy. It’s kind of unfortunate we didn’t get to play together more, but this is like my sister, my twin,” Bueckers said through tears.

UConn senior Nika Mühl embraces head coach Geno Auriemma
UConn senior Nika Mühl announced that she plans to leave UConn after her senior year, forgoing an extra year of eligibility. (Photo Credit | Domenic Allegra)

Mühl should have one more chance to play in front of a home crowd. Projected to be a No. 3 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, UConn is expected to host the first two rounds at home in Storrs, Connecticut.

“It’s just another opportunity for me and this team to play in the best gym ever in front of the best fans ever. I can’t wait,” Mühl said.

“I feel like we’re so excited. I feel like right now we’re so tired but we could go out there and play another game. Just super, super excited and so happy that I’m going to be able to share the court with my team, especially on that court. It’s the most special one.”

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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