Why UConn women’s basketball looks stronger than 2022-23 despite more season-ending injuries

STORRS — When senior Aubrey Griffin suffered a season-ending left ACL tear on Jan. 3, there was a devastating sense of deja uv for the UConn women’s basketball team after it spent much of the previous two seasons grappling with constant injury issues.

Nearly two months later, the No. 10 Huskies are poised to complete their first undefeated season in the Big East since 2020-21 with one regular-season game remaining, at Providence on Saturday. The team is continuing to build momentum despite its short bench, beating Villanova 67-46 on Wednesday and holding Wildcats star Lucy Olsen to just six points on 2-for-16 shooting from the field. The first time the teams met on Jan. 31, Olsen scored 12 of her 15 points in the first half before UConn pulled away for an 81-60 win.

There is undeniably less talent depth in the Big East this season with only four of last year’s 10 first-team all-conference selections returning in 2023-24. But UConn’s losses last year weren’t to Big East Player of the Year Maddie Siegrist at Villanova or to All-American Aneesah Morrow at DePaul. Instead the Huskies were stunned at home by St. John’s when the Red Storm went 9-for-18 on 3-pointers, and they fell to Marquette on the road in their lowest-scoring performance of the season with 52 points.

UConn certainly hasn’t looked invulnerable this season, but the team is not finding itself in dire straights against lesser opponents the way it often did in 2022-23. The Huskies have won 16 of 17 Big East games by at least 20 points including their last five in a row, and every team behind them has lost at least three times in conference play.

Aaliyah Edwards finds long-awaited consistency

Aaliyah Edwards was a third-team All-American in 2022-23, but she hit a slump last February during a critical part of conference play. She logged just two double-doubles the entire month and averaged as many turnovers (4.6) as made field goals (4.4) over a five-game stretch that included both both of UConn’s Big East losses.

This season, Edwards has been the Huskies’ most stable force through the end of the regular season. She has recorded a double-double in nine of the team’s last 11 games and is averaging 21.3 points and 12.8 rebounds since Feb. 1. For coach Geno Auriemma, her breakthrough was long overdue.

“You can’t be inconsistent your whole life right? At some point you have to work at it and apply yourself,” Auriemma said Wednesday. “You’ve got to give the same effort every single night, every single day in practice, that’s where it starts. So even days when you struggle like (Aaliyah) did today … she’s still got a double-double, and that just comes from hard work. That’s it. People that work really hard usually get what they work for.”

Edwards has been a far more composed presence in the post, embracing her role without the additional security that Dorka Juhasz provided last season. She is shooting above 60% for the first time in her career as a starter and averaging career highs in both points (18.1) and rebounds (9.5) per game.

“I feel like I’m playing really well this February, but it also started at the start of the season,” Edwards said. “I think it’s just a continuation of, not even each and every month, but each and every game jus trying to get better and improve as the season goes along … I’m just more prepared. I’ve really tried to make sure that I’m taking care of my body, recovering when we need to recover, but also when the time comes where we need to play hard to be intentional with what we’re doing in practice and training good habits.”

Paige Bueckers taking offensive ownership

Paige Bueckers finished without a single assist against Villanova for just the second time in her UConn career, and Auriemma was thrilled. The star guard embraced a more selfish mindset that he has wanted from her all season, scoring 31 points for the second game in a row while shooting 11-for-15 from the field and 50% from 3-point range.

“I love it,” Auriemma said with a grin. “We know Paige, on every ball screen, is going to get trapped or some kind of double team. When that happens and people get open, she’s going to find them one way or another. But she can only find them if they really think Paige is trying to score every time she touches the ball and she’s putting that kind of mental and actual physical pressure on the other team … So we’ve still go a long way to go.”

Edwards’s breakout has also fueled an offensive explosion for Bueckers in recent weeks. The pair seem to have mastered their two-man game, and Auriemma said the coaching staff has made a conscious effort to implement more plays for the two of them down the stretch.

“What’s helped is Paige is usually being guarded by a forward, who’s not used to guarding the person with the ball in a ball screen; They’re used to guarding the guy in the ball screen,” Auriemma said. “So there’s been a great connection between the two of them … and they’re getting better at reading it, so there’s a lot of things that are kind of falling into place.”

Roster, rotations stabilize despite early injuries

Griffin’s was an unprecedented fifth season-ending injury and the second torn ACL for UConn in 2023-24 after Azzi Fudd suffered the same injury in mid-November. Jana El Alfy was ruled out before the season began when she ruptured her ACL at the FIBA U19 World Cup in June, and Ayanna Patterson never appeared in a game before having season-ending surgery for patellar tendonitis in December. Ongoing head and neck injuries became season-ending for junior Caroline Ducharme on Jan. 23.

Only Bueckers and Ice Brady had season-ending injuries last season, but a carousel of more minor issues left that team often guessing at who would be available on a given day. Griffin and Lou Lopez Senechal were both limited by lingering problems during the 2023 postseason, all culminating in an early exit from the NCAA Tournament for UConn when it was upset by Ohio State in the Sweet 16.

“The last couple years have been really weird, because both times we were anticipating people coming back just in in time for the postseason, which to be honest, made it difficult to incorporate them back into the rotation,” Auriemma said. “Right now we have pretty good idea that this is our group. This is what we have, this is the way the rotation works. Now it’s making sure that our freshmen who are going to be going through it for the first time can perform at a real high level. That’s the great unknown.”