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UConn women’s basketball ready to redeem Sweet 16 upset with matchup vs. Duke: How to watch

PORTLAND — UConn women’s basketball senior Nika Muhl remembers last season’s 73-61 loss to Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 as the worst loss of her career.

The junior point guard played all 40 minutes against the Buckeyes but logged just three points, two rebounds and five assists while giving up seven turnovers and going 0-for-2 from 3-point range. When the final buzzer sounded, snapping UConn’s streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances, Muhl blamed herself for the stunning upset.

“I remember feeling an extreme level of guilt, because I felt like I was the one that was supposed to run that team and have things under control and be able to calm my team down in those hectic moments,” Muhl said. “I failed at doing so because I was so much in my own head myself. It was really tough for me after the game … because I felt like I didn’t give my all.”

It was a long and difficult process to convert that agonizing defeat into motivation on the court after the season’s abrupt ending. Muhl leaned heavily on her support system in Storrs, especially coach Geno Auriemma and assistant Morgan Valley.

“I watched a lot of film with them. We had a lot of conversations about the mental aspect of it and how to get back form something like that,” she said. “It was a lot for me, and they stepped up to really help me out of that hole and show me how to fix this … I didn’t need anybody to praise me or tell me how good I am. I needed to hear just ‘We need you in the next game,’ or ‘We need your tomorrow in practice.’ That’s it … That’s been the biggest wakeup call for me.”

In 2023-24, the Huskies are even bigger underdogs to reach the Final Four than they were last season, but Auriemma feels significantly better about his squad’s chances than he did entering the Sweet 16 a year ago. Having superstar Paige Bueckers back on the court is perhaps the biggest difference for this year’s team, but it goes beyond just the senior guard’s production.

“We don’t seem to be as mentally or physically worn out like we were last year at this time. I think having Paige makes us a little more confident than maybe we were last year at this time,” Auriemma said. “It doesn’t feel the same. I think our practices and everything that we’ve done leading up to this feels a little bit different than it did last season … (In 2023) we ran into the wrong team at the wrong time. Ohio State was just way, way, way better than us. And Duke may be way, way better than us tomorrow. Who knows? But I think we’re in a better frame of mind than we were last year.”

With Bueckers back on the court, Muhl doesn’t bear the responsibility of managing the team single-handedly. While she is playing most of her minutes out of position, Bueckers is a natural point guard and won the Nancy Lieberman Award as a freshman in 2021. Along with her 21.8 points and 5.1 rebounds, Bueckers shoots 54% from the field averaging 3.9 assists and 2.2 steals per game.

Muhl said simply feeling the star guard’s presence on the floor is a mental game-changer for the Huskies.

“Just having her on the court, even if she’s standing there not doing anything, it means so much because everybody in the back of their mind is thinking, ‘We’re good, we have Paige on the court,'” Muhl said. “It gives you a boost of calmness too, where you don’t have to worry about the next play necessarily. You can just stay present in the moment knowing Paige is on the court and we’re good. It’s funny to say it like that, but it’s true. It does a lot for your mental, and we’re just so grateful that we’re able to play with her.”

Duke is a much weaker opponent on paper than last year’s Ohio State team, but the 7-seed Blue Devils only made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament by upsetting the 2-seed Buckeyes this year in the Round of 32. The last time UConn faced Duke was also in Portland in last season’s Phil Knight Invitational, and the Huskies dominated 78-50.

But both rosters look drastically different this time around, and UConn isn’t taking its opponent for granted with redemption on the line.

“That’s the beauty of playing in the NCAA tournament. If you won last year, you have to put that behind you because that’s not going to help you win this year. If you lost last year, you have to put that behind you because that doesn’t mean you’re going to lose this year,” Auriemma said. “There may be things tomorrow that we can handle very easily … and there’s going to be things tomorrow that are going to come up that are very, very difficult … Each and every thing has to be done on its own and you have to figure it out during those 40 minutes.”

How to watch

Site: Moda Center; Portland, Oregon

Time: 8 p.m.

Series: UConn leads, 13-3

Last meeting: UConn, 78-50; Nov. 25, 2022 in Portland

Records: (3) UConn: 31-5, 18-0 Big East; (7) Duke: 22-11, 11-7 ACC

TV: ESPN

Radio: UConn Sports Network on FOX Sports 97.9