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The low point for UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma this season didn’t come when star Paige Bueckers went down with a knee injury in early December.
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He said it came in January, when the team, already missing Bueckers, junior forward Aubrey Griffin (season-ending back injury) and top freshman Azzi Fudd (right foot injury) found out it would have to visit Oregon without senior guard Christyn Williams, who tested positive for COVID-19.
With just six players in the rotation, UConn was dominated by the unranked Ducks 72-59.
The Huskies (25-5) have had eight players miss at least two games this season with illness or injury, resulting in 10 different starting lineups.
Connecticut lost to unranked teams for the first time since 2012 and saw Villanova snap the program’s winning streak against conference opponents at 169 games on Feb. 9. That was another game where just six Huskies, albeit a different six than against Oregon, saw action.
But everyone except Griffin is now back. The team is on a 10-game winning streak and in the five games since Bueckers’ return on Feb. 25, UConn has been outscoring opponents by 35.8 points per game. A now-healthy Connecticut dominated Villanova by 30 points in the Big East title game and nine Huskies are now playing at least 15 minutes per game.
“Most people’s benches tend to shorten as the NCAA Tournament comes along and ours has gotten bigger,” Auriemma said. “So, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out, but I would rather have this situation than the one I’ve dealt with for the last three months.”
The injuries have allowed players who otherwise would have had minor roles on the team to gain significant experience, allowing Auriemma to substitute liberally. That means foul trouble is less of an issue; there are options if one of his younger players struggles with the spotlight of the NCAA Tournament and fatigue should not be a factor, allowing more pressure on defense and transition on offense, he said.
“I think also just looking at it from the bench a little bit, just kind of, you can get a little feel of the game how it goes, just how we can impact the game, whoever is coming off the bench,” forward Dorka Juhasz said.
“So I think that’s really helpful for us, just to get a few people in and just kind of pressure the ball on defense and everything like that. But definitely you can feel sometimes that (the opponent is) getting tired. So if I can run the floor a little bit more, a little harder, I think that shows on our offense and defense, too.”
Evina Westbrook, who starred at Tennessee before transferring to UConn in the spring of 2019, has transitioned this season from a starter to playing the Huskies sixth woman role, providing instant offense off the bench. She and her teammates have learned to check their egos for the good of the team, she said.
“It’s kind of fun to play like that,” Westbrook said. “For the other team, they can’t relax on who we’ve got coming in, because everyone is really dangerous. “So it feels good and it’s different. But I think it just really prepares you for the next level as well, having to adjust. You’re you’re not going to be the star player on every team you play on. You’re not going to have the same role.”
Bueckers, last year’s national player of the year, continues to work her way back from the tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus in her left knee. She has seen her playing time increase since her return from just under 13 minutes per game to just under 20 minutes.
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Auriemma said she will have no minutes restriction during the NCAA Tournament and he has not ruled out returning her to the starting lineup.
But Bueckers said she’s ready for whatever role the coach gives her.
“We have a really deep roster and everybody that comes off the bench and plays is just as good as the starters,” she said. “Everybody is just confident enough to know that we have each other’s backs and whatever we need. If somebody’s having a bad game, somebody else will step up and we just all have each other’s backs.”