March 26, 2023 

‘There was always somebody to pick us up’: UConn performed despite adversity

UConn's consecutive Final Four streak ends at 14

The UConn women’s basketball program always seems to be in the middle of a long-standing, historic and absurd streak. Whether it’s breaking their own program’s record 90-game win streak by setting a 111-game win streak, playing 30 straight seasons without back-to-back losses, winning four consecutive national champions during the Breanna Stewart era, or advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for 29 years and counting… the Huskies are always raising the bar on their already-sky-high standards.

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In an ugly, clumsy 73-61 loss to Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen on Saturday, a UConn streak came to an end in Seattle. For the first time since 2007, UConn will not advance to Final Four weekend, shattering a 14-year streak.

“The problem with streaks is the longer they go, you’re closer to it ending than you are to the beginning of it,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “And it’s just a matter of time … it’s not if it’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of time when it’s going to happen. And it was going to happen sooner rather than later.”

Season of adversity in Storrs

The 2022-23 season will go down as one of the most difficult in UConn history. The team lost 2021 Player of the Year Paige Bueckers (ACL) and freshman Ice Brady (patella) during the preseason. Prior to the BIG EAST Tournament, the last time UConn had 10 players available was Nov. 14 against Texas. In December Auriemma’s mother passed away and he missed four games, taking time away from the team to focus on his health. It was difficult to watch players like sophomore Caroline Ducharme struggle with migraines and spend much of the season in concussion protocol, or to watch Azzi Fudd return from a knee injury only to re-injure her knee one game back and miss the majority of the regular season.

Despite the injury woes and rotation changes, UConn won both the BIG EAST regular season and tournament titles and advanced to a 29th consecutive Sweet Sixteen. When players were out, other players stepped up. When Geno missed time, associate head coach Chris Dailey was ready to step into head coaching responsibilities. Teammates supported one another through injuries while navigating their own devastating injuries. Perhaps the adversity is what made those accomplishments so much sweeter. After UConn’s second-round win over Baylor, Auriemma said the game was one of the “most gratifying wins” that he has had in Gampel Pavilion in his nearly 40 years of coaching.

“The friendships, all the good memories, all the ups and downs. There was always somebody to pick us up,” said UConn graduate student Dorka Juhász. “Getting through what we went through obviously these past two years, it’s definitely going to be a lot of positive feelings, a lot of memories.”

Juhász’s collegiate career ended with the heavy irony of defeat against the program where she spent her first three college seasons, Ohio State. A two-time First Team All-Big Ten (2020, ’21) selection, Juhász led the Buckeyes in points and rebounding during her freshman and sophomore seasons (2018-20). She averaged a double-double during her junior season before transferring to UConn for her remaining two years of NCAA eligibility.

“Obviously, it’s very upsetting how we ended our college career and this season because, you know, this is not what we prepared for,” Juhász said. “I think we don’t really have a lot of negative thoughts that we’re going to take away from this because we [have gotten] so much from this program, from Coach [Auriemma], all the coaches, our teammates. So we’re definitely very grateful. But it’s just sad, obviously, that it ended like this.”

Looking forward

With the talent expected to return to Storrs next season, UConn has the potential to be one of the best teams in the nation once again. Rising senior point guard and back-to-back BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year Nika Mühl had a breakout 2022-23 season, stepping into a larger-than-expected role in the absence of Bueckers. If Mühl, Bueckers and rising junior Fudd are healthy, UConn has a very dangerous backcourt. That’s without even considering incoming freshman guard KK Arnold, the No. 6 overall recruit in the class of 2023 who is headed to Storrs.

In the frontcourt, AP Third Team All-American Aaliyah Edwards is expected to return for her senior season. If she continues to progress as she has this season, she is a Player of the Year candidate for next year. With Ice Brady hopefully returning from injury, UConn will have more depth and the ability to manage minutes for post players. Alongside wings Aubrey Griffin and Caroline Ducharme, UConn has plenty of athleticism and several options for offensive production. If Griffin can consistently be a contributor, she is the X-factor to make this team truly elite.

As this season has affirmed, nothing is guaranteed. UConn may lose some players to the transfer portal, injuries may sideline players for weeks or months, or the whole season. There will be unknowns and “what ifs,” disappointments and pleasant surprises. And ultimately, to get to the national championship and win the whole thing, it’ll come down to some luck.

Luck has not been on Connecticut’s side this season or much of last season. Time will tell what the next season will bring. But, with a lot of talent and a little bit of good luck, good things tend to happen in Storrs.

“I think that the other thing that it — that you take from it is how incredibly difficult it is to win in March in the NCAA tournament and because we made it look so routine and so easy, we gave the impression that it’s very easy to do,” Auriemma said. “It’s a reminder that, no, it’s not. It’s very difficult to do. So you appreciate what we had, what we did, and, you know, you have to start another one next year.”

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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