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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    UConn’s Muhl will take center stage against Ohio State pressure in Sweet 16

    In this Feb. 18 file photo, UConn guard Nika Muhl passes the ball in a game against Villanova in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
    UConn's Azzi Fudd (35), Nika Muhl (10) and Aaliyah Edwards celebrate after their win over Villanova in the finals of the Big East Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 6. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Nika Muhl poses with her Big East Defensive Player of the Year and her All-Big East Second Team awards with Big East Conference Commissioner Val Ackerman, left, before a game against Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 4. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Seattle — UConn coach Geno Auriemma wrapped his point guard, Nika Muhl, in a warm embrace following the Huskies’ hardfought victory over Baylor. Muhl was magnificent with 10 assists and two turnovers, UConn’s engine, its heartbeat.

    “I gave her the biggest hug, but I whispered in her ear, ‘I still hate you,’” Auriemma said with a laugh later that night.

    Did he really?

    “Yes, he did. Yeah,” Muhl confirmed. “His ‘I hate you’ is like, ‘I love you,’ so I don’t even care. It was a great moment coming out with a minute left, coming to the bench just knowing we did it.”

    UConn, 31-5 and the No. 2 seed in the Seattle 3 Regional, bidding for its 15th straight Final Four, is now ready to take on No. 3 Ohio State (27-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday (Ch. 8) at 18,000-seat Climate Pledge Arena, home of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

    Ohio State thrives on pressuring the ball, like, next-level pressure. The Buckeyes have 387 steals this season, as opposed to 204 for their opponents.

    That leaves the passionate, sometimes stubborn Muhl, the other half of the world’s most sarcastic comedy duo along with Auriemma, at center stage against the press.

    And Auriemma, if you listen closer, will be the first to tell you he wouldn’t want to have anyone else in that spot.

    “I think I would rather deal with somebody like Sveta (Abrosimova) or Nika or Diana (Taurasi) or Sue (Bird) or Maya (Moore),” Auriemma said Friday outside the UConn locker room, ticking off a list of UConn greats that also may have challenged his authority once or twice.

    “I would rather deal with guys like that any time instead of, ‘OK, coach. OK, coach. OK, coach’ without there being any push-back and fight. Because if you’re not gonna fight me, you’re not gonna fight the other team either. If you’re willing to get in a fight with me, then I know you’ll fight against anybody that we play against.”

    Muhl, 5-foot-10, is from Zagreb, Croatia. She is second in the nation with 8.0 assists per game and has 279 assists overall this season, eclipsing the UConn single-season record of 231 formerly held by Bird, the five-time Olympic gold medalist.

    Muhl has recorded double-digit assists 12 times this season. No other UConn player ever had more than three in one year.

    An example of Muhl’s vision: Against Baylor on Monday night, Muhl had her back to the basket and bobbled the ball, tipped back into her face by a defender. She suddenly flung the ball to her left to hit a cutting Aubrey Griffin for a layup in the 77-58 victory, which propelled UConn to its 29th straight Sweet 16.

    “I mean, we watched it on film after the game and coach just rolled his eyes and he was like, ‘Oh, that was lucky,’” Muhl said. “But I’m like, ‘That was not lucky.’ I saw that. I just know every time Aubrey’s on the floor, at one point she’s going to be open because she’s so fast the defender often loses her.

    “I kind of knew she was there somewhere.”

    Muhl is the two-time Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year and was an all-league second team selection this season. She was an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American and she is a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the nation’s best point guard.

    She only averages 7.2 points her game, perhaps keeping her from further accolades.

    But really, if only guts and guile were on the stat sheet ...

    “Her confidence level is, ‘I can do anything on that basketball court,’” Auriemma said. “And the bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the more pressure doesn’t faze her one bit. So if you have a leader like that on your team, that does rub off on the rest of the players.

    “You know, she’s running out of the tunnel and you’re following her. That’s a pretty good person to follow into what’s coming next.”

    Auriemma said he’s “not crazy” about the matchup with Ohio State. He said it’s rare that a team can get out in transition the way the Buckeyes do, as well as play pressure defense. Graduate guard Lou Lopez Senechal said the Huskies have been working on facing the press in practice.

    “We would play against the (male) practice players,” Lopez Senechal said. “They would choose the bigger ones, the more athletic ones, to make it harder for us. I think it prepared us. We know that if we find ways to break it, that’s when we can have easy baskets, go in transition.”

    Said Muhl: “We should embrace that. We should embrace the aggressive teams because that means that sometimes an easy basket, sometimes an easy 3. We just have to stay composed. I feel like we respect them a lot. Their press is really good. I think in order for us to be successful in that we need to stay calm and it’s going to have to come from me.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

    No. 2 UConn vs. No. 3 Ohio State

    Location: Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle

    Tip: 4 p.m. (Ch. 8)

    Records: Ohio State 27-7, UConn 31-5.

    Last game: Ohio State beat No. 6 North Carolina in the NCAA second round 71-69; UConn beat No. 7 Baylor in the NCAA second round 77-58.

    Last game’s starters: Ohio State, 5-11 G Taylor Mikesell (17.2 ppg, 2.4 apg), 5-10 G Jacy Sheldon (12.4 ppg), 6-0 F Eboni Walker (4.8 ppg), 6-0 F Cotie McMahon (14.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 spg), 6-0 G/F Taylor Thierry (13.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.1 spg).

    UConn, 6-3 F Aaliyah Edwards (17.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.1 bpg), 6-5 F Dorka Juhasz (14.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.1 apg), 6-1 G/F Lou Lopez Senechal (15.3 ppg), 5-11 G Azzi Fudd (15.2 ppg), 5-10 G Nika Muhl (7.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.4 spg).

    Noteworthy: In Ohio State’s previous game, Jacy Sheldon’s jump shot with 1.8 seconds to play gave the Buckeyes a 71-69 victory over North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That makes one thing that Ohio State and UConn have in common: players returning from injury. Sheldon, a 5-foot-10 senior guard who started all 32 games a year ago, averaging 19.7 points per game, returned to the Buckeyes’ starting lineup two games ago after suffering from a foot injury. She has played in just 11 games, with 12.4 points per game. “I think two specific areas,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said of the positives from Sheldon’s return. “Number one, we play much faster transitioning to offense when she’s in the game. She just pushes the ball so aggressively and everybody’s got to come with her. And then we’re more effective in our press.” UConn, meanwhile, has added Azzi Fudd back to the lineup after Fudd missed 22 games with a right knee injury. She scored 22 points in Monday’s second-round win over Baylor, including three 3-point field goals. “Azzi’s the kind of player that can, in just five possessions, blow the game open, can take a five-point lead and make it a 20-point lead,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So having somebody like that is just invaluable. ... Now, obviously, we have to take advantage of it.” ... Ohio State’s Taylor Mikesell, a senior guard who played two seasons at Maryland and one at Oregon before joining the Buckeyes, is 108-for-264 from 3-point range (40.9%). UConn’s top 3-point shooter, by contrast, Lou Lopez Senechal, has 73 3s to her credit. ... Redshirt junior guard Rikki Harris has a team-high 115 assists for Ohio State. ... UConn is ranked sixth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Ohio State is 12th. ... The winner of this game will face the Virginia Tech/Tennessee winner in the Seattle 3 Regional final at 9 p.m. Monday. ... UConn is 6-0 all-time against Ohio State, last meeting the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, during the 2019 season, a game in which current UConn graduate forward Dorka Juhasz played for Ohio State. The teams have never met in the NCAA tournament. ... UConn’s Aubrey Griffin is the only member of the team to have previously faced Ohio State. She scored two points against the Buckeyes in her fifth collegiate game.

    — Vickie Fulkerson

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