With Paige Bueckers cleared to practice, UConn women ready to embark on a European tour
Storrs — It started out with some joking around with regard to a homecoming trip for UConn’s Nika Muhl, a senior on the women’s basketball team, which has long since held the tradition of returning the upperclassmen to their home towns for a victory lap.
“Like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to Croatia,’” said Muhl, who is from the city of Zagreb, Crotia’s capital.
Muhl, the effervescent 5-foot-11 point guard, would answer: “Yeah, you are. We’re going!”
“Then it started being, ‘Oh, we’re going to Croatia on a European tour and it slowly started happening,” Muhl said. “(I) slowly, slowly started realizing. I’ve been trying to help as much as I can with the organization and everything but they handled it amazingly. Sarah (Darras, UConn’s assistant athletic director for women’s basketball administration) did such a great job with everything. She’s been all over the place.”
UConn leaves for its 10-day trip to Europe on Monday, arriving in Zagreb on Tuesday. The team will play four exhibition games, one each in Zagreb, Ljublijana, Slovenia; Bologna, Italy; and Venice, Italy.
The tour will include a trip to the Adriatic Coast, a tour of the Ferrari and Lamborghini museums, a cooking lesson and a gondola ride.
Teams are permitted by NCAA rules to take a foreign trip every four years. This will be UConn’s first since a 2017 trip to Italy, and its sixth overall. On a scale of 1-10, Muhl said before Friday’s team practice at the Werth Family Champions Center, that her excitement level is about an 11.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said everyone on the 14-player roster is expected to play except Jana El Alfy (Achilles, out for the season), Ayanna Patterson (knee) and Amari DeBerry (back).
Paige Bueckers, a senior who was national player of the year as a freshman but has missed the bulk of two straight seasons with injuries — including all of 2022-23 — was cleared for her first contact practice Friday and Auriemma said her availability will be based on how she feels headed into the tour.
The team will begin play Aug. 16 versus a team of Croatian All-Stars.
“I’m super excited for just seeing my family, seeing my friends, but also introducing my family here (teammates), my family there and opposite,” Muhl said. “My teammates experiencing a different culture, a different lifestyle, different people, a different language ... I feel like the whole trip’s gonna be a lot of fun.
“(The game in Croatia), is going to be a lot of people, my friends, my family, my neighbors, people from all over the place coming to see that game.”
Muhl spoke of an anxiousness, wanting to best showcase the place she’s talked so much about to her teammates since her arrival in Storrs.
“Many people haven’t been in Europe here. We’ll see how they like the food. We’ll see because I’ve been hyping up the food. ... The best food over there? I recommend a traditional food that we eat, purica s mlincima, it’s like turkey with not pasta but it’s similar to pasta.”
It will be the first time Muhl’s parents, Darko and Roberta, have seen her play for UConn, with Nika joining the program during a COVID-19-altered season.
Muhl emphasized that it’s a business trip first, with the Huskies, who have been practicing with the international-sized ball this week, looking to go 4-0. But as Auriemma pointed out, the team won’t be practicing while on the trip, so there’s more to it than just basketball.
“Basketball over there is just part of the trip, what the trip is for,” said Auriemma, whose team is coming off a 31-6 season. “But like I tell the team, every time we’ve gone over there, we’ve found out something about somebody on our team that helps us going forward.”
“I’ve always loved being able to play overseas because they play very different,” UConn junior Azzi Fudd said. “Each country plays different. I feel like they’re much more physical, as you can also see that with Nika. ... I think this will be a good test for us early just to kind of see how we’re doing, everything that we started doing this past week. I’m super excited to just see everywhere. I want to travel, so I love this.”
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