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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    UConn women were vulnerable this season, but they’ll be back

    UConn forward Dorka Juhasz (14) and Ohio State guard Rikki Harris battle for a loose ball during the first half of Saturday’s Sweet 16 game in the NCAA tournament in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
    UConn head coach Geno Auriemma yells to his team during the first half of Saturday’s Sweet 16 game in the NCAA tournament against Ohio State in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
    Ohio State forward Taylor Thierry (2) drives towards the basket as UConn guard Azzi Fudd (35) plays defense in the first quarter of Saturday’s Sweet 16 game in the NCAA Tournament in Seattle. (AP Photo/Caean Couto)

    Seattle — UConn’s streak of 14 straight Final Fours came to an abrupt end Saturday against Ohio State, its first loss in the Sweet 16 since 2005 in Kansas City.

    It was but a few moments later that Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff was asked, rather abruptly, in fact, the following question at his postgame press conference:

    “Do you think this win officially means that the UConn dynasty is dead?”

    “I don’t think so,” McGuff said. “They’ve got probably the best player in America (the injured Paige Bueckers) sitting on the bench today.

    “Actually, I was talking to (UConn associate head coach) Chris Dailey before the game and they’re still continuing to get kids that fit their program. That’s what they’ve done better than anybody in America is they get kids that really fit with their program and their culture. And they’re still getting ‘em.

    “And so I think they’re going to continue to be one of the very top programs in college basketball.”

    UConn unexpectedly got caught in the spin cycle of Ohio State’s full court press Saturday afternoon at Climate Pledge Arena, a 73-61 loss that fell out of character with the Huskies’ strengths in recent weeks. They ran off a dominating three games in the Big East tournament; they smacked a pair of NCAA tournament opponents.

    Then things unraveled Saturday. UConn turned the ball over 25 times, spoiling the final appearance of graduate transfers Dorka Juhasz and Lou Lopez Senechal, who both have futures in the WNBA.

    Third team All-American Aaliyah Edwards was in foul trouble and finished with four points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes.

    Nika Muhl, meanwhile, the fiery, confident point guard, played all 40 minutes, giving her the most minutes per game in a season (36.6) of any player in UConn history. She began pressing as things spun out of control and finished with seven turnovers. She also had 284 assists, more than any other player in UConn history.

    The loss wasn’t any one person’s fault, head coach Geno Auriemma said.

    “That’s the price you pay for playing at a place like (UConn),” said Auriemma, whose teams have won more national championships than any team in history at 11 and spent nearly 30 years not losing back-to-back games.

    “Any time you go someplace where the rewards and the benefits are greater than they are anywhere else, the other side is also there. (But) they didn’t let anybody down. They didn’t let another player down. They didn’t let the school down or the coaches or the fans or anybody.

    “If your effort is bad, if you just don’t show up, that’s different. Something like this, believe me, they have no one to apologize to.”

    There was a great deal of philosophizing, a spotlight for Lopez Senechal and Juhasz, on the interview podium, to say a tearful goodbye and what they will remember.

    Lopez, who finished with more than 2,000 career points, came to UConn for one year after playing for four at Fairfield, where she was the Metro Athletic Conference Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1 guard/forward from Grenoble, France, finished with 15.5 points per game, 25 in the finale against Ohio State.

    Juhasz, meanwhile, played three seasons at Ohio State, graduating as a Buckeye before playing two years at UConn. She averaged 14.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. A 6-5 forward from Pecs, Hungary, a gentle giant, she made the Big East All-Tournament team.

    “I mean, I could say so much about this team,” Lopez Senechal said through sobs. “No matter what happened tonight, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I wouldn’t have done it with anyone else. I’m grateful that coach and everyone gave me this opportunity to be here this year and compete at this level.

    “It’s never something that I would have thought one day in my life.”

    But for all the philosophy, the Huskies, although vulnerable this year due to injuries, aren’t quite dead, finishing 31-6 with Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

    UConn will return Bueckers next season, who was the national player of the year as a freshman in 2021 before spending the last two seasons injured. Azzi Fudd, who missed 22 games this year, also injured, was the national high school player of the year.

    Edwards, a member of the Canadian Olympic team and UConn’s leading scorer at 16.6 points per game, returns. Aubrey Griffin, who won the second-round NCAA game against Baylor, returns. Muhl, Caroline Ducharme, Ayanna Patterson, Amari DeBerry, Ines Bettencourt.

    UConn fans will finally get a glimpse of highly touted freshman Ice Brady, who missed the season with a knee injury and Egyptian Jana El Alfy, who enrolled early but did not compete.

    The freshman class next year is ranked fourth in the nation by ESPNW, including the No. 6 recruit in the country in 5-9 point guard KK Arnold; No. 15 Ashlynn Shade, a 5-10 shooting guard; and No. 41 Qadence Samuels, a 6-2 wing.

    That makes 14 of the best players in the country.

    “Sometimes you meet somebody else that keeps punching and doesn’t give you an opportunity to punch them back,” Auriemma said. “I just thought Ohio State ... you had to be pretty precise and you had to be on point.

    “Again, it’s unfortunate that we chose tonight to play the way we did but I think Ohio State had so much to do with that. They knew exactly what we wanted to do and what to take away from us. We lost our balance and we lost our equilibrium a little bit and I don’t think we ever got it back.

    “It’s unfortunate. These guys gave us an awful lot. They did an awful lot. They accomplished an awful lot.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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