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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Griffin’s contributions for UConn women, despite back pain, were worthy of the cheers

    UConn's Aubrey Griffin (44) drives to the basket as Vermont's Paula Gonzalez (13) defends in the first half of Saturday’s NCAA tournament first round game at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Storrs — If the fairly reserved Aubrey Griffin doesn’t like to say too much about herself, all you had to do was listen to the 10,167 fans Monday night at sold-out Gampel Pavilion.

    With 48.5 seconds remaining in the third quarter and her UConn team leading by 14, Griffin checked out of the game, a one-woman wrecking crew, to cheers of “Au-brey! Au-brey! Au-brey!”

    In the third quarter, in which the outcome of the NCAA tournament second-round game against Baylor hung in the balance, Griffin — despite wearing a contraption to massage her injured back and keep the muscles warm in between stints on the floor — changed the outcome.

    She had six rebounds in 6 minutes, 30 seconds, an assist, a steal and a block to go with a majestic two points after point guard Nika Muhl somehow saw her cutting to the basket and threw her a dart for a layup.

    The 77-58 triumph over No. 7 Baylor sent No. 2 UConn (31-5) to the Sweet 16 for an unprecedented 29th straight season. The Huskies will take on No. 3 Ohio State in the Seattle 3 Regional at 4 p.m. Saturday (Ch. 8).

    “I really thought the tide changed because of Aubrey Griffin,” Baylor coach Nicki Collen said. “Her energy at both ends, like we would get a miss (from UConn) and she looked like Superman flying in from the perimeter, getting them extra opportunities.

    “She just changed the energy for this whole team.”

    Griffin, a 6-foot-1 forward, is a redshirt junior from Ossining, N.Y. She should be a senior, but missed the entirety of last season after undergoing back surgery.

    In NCAA tournament years, she is inexperienced. There was no tournament her freshman year. As a sophomore, the NCAAs were played in a bubble in San Antonio. And last year she sat out, not playing in a game for 587 days.

    With 4,000 UConn students among Saturday’s NCAA tournament crowd, this was Griffin’s first time hearing them chanting her name at Gampel Pavilion.

    “I just wanted to do anything to help my team, bring the energy, get the rebounds,” Griffin said. “Just go in there and have an impact. I was definitely feeling (the crowd). I was bouncing off my teammates. They were giving me the energy too. I was making plays, making an impact, bringing the energy.”

    The Huskies led 40-35 at halftime on a buzzer-beating 3-point field goal by Muhl, but UConn leading scorer Aaliyah Edwards picked up her fourth foul early in the third quarter. In came Griffin at the 7:19 mark.

    She finished with a game-high 12 rebounds, yes, even at times appearing to leap small buildings for some of them the way Superman would. She added four points and three assists, playing 19 minutes in all.

    “I mean, if I could say who was MVP of that game, it was definitely Aubrey,” Muhl said.

    Now, about Griffin’s injury: Previously in the UConn starting lineup, Griffin played just 12 minutes in the Big East tournament final after suffering from back spasms. She didn’t practice much prior to the NCAA tournament and came off the bench for seven minutes in a first-round NCAA victory over Vermont.

    When she’s not in the game, Griffin keeps warm by riding a stationary bike in the tunnel to the locker room.

    “I think she came in third in the Tour de France because she spent so much time on the bike,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma later deadpanned. “One time I said, ‘Put Aubrey in.’ I had to send carrier pigeons to go find her. She was so far away.

    “So then it became, ‘Hey, look, if we’re going to put Aubrey in we need to have someone on their way (to tell her).’ What do I got to have, ESP here? I know that in four minutes, I’m going to need her?”

    Auriemma said that some of rebounds Griffin skied for were attributable to “God-given” talent. Some of it was Griffin’s will.

    In any case, the coach said, UConn is at its best with everyone playing well, not just when Edwards scores 28, the way she has seemingly every game of the postseason. On Monday, Azzi Fudd had 22, Edwards 19, Dorka Juhasz 11, Caroline Ducharme 10 and Muhl had 10 assists.

    “For us to win, we have to have multiple players play really well,” Auriemma said. “I thought today everyone that played, played very well. That’s when we’re at our best. When we get the balance we got tonight, we’re a really, really good team.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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