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No. 3 UConn women 'have no choice but to adapt' as injuries strike

UConn coach Geno Auriemma called this week's sequence of events, in which reigning women's basketball national player of the year Paige Bueckers suffered a fracture to the tibial plateau in her left leg — which will cause her to miss the next 6-8 weeks — "as difficult as any days that I can remember."

Then, as UConn readied to leave for Thursday's matchup at Georgia Tech (7 p.m., ESPN2), the first of the long stretch without Bueckers, things got worse for the Huskies' contingent of remaining guards.

With Bueckers and former national high school player of the year Azzi Fudd sidelined, Auriemma announced via a Zoom conference Wednesday that sophomore guard Nika Muhl, who would have likely assumed Bueckers' role at point guard, is also injured. Muhl is dealing with a stress reaction stemming from a left ankle injury she suffered in last year's postseason and could miss up to three weeks, Auriemma said.

Junior forward Aubrey Griffin also has not played this season due to injury, leaving the third-ranked Huskies (5-1) nine players as they head for a two-game road trip at Georgia Tech and versus UCLA on Saturday in Newark, N.J. The Huskies are down to three guards, with redshirt senior Evina Westbrook, senior Christyn Williams and freshman Caroline Ducharme.

"I think yesterday was a tough one. I think yesterday was a little bit of a struggle just trying to adjust to everything," Westbrook said of Tuesday's first practice following the news that Bueckers will miss significant time.

"But I think once we get into the swing of things, we have no choice but to adapt. Missing Azzi was hard, now missing Paige is going to be really difficult for us. We're going to be just fine and we're going to make it. Like I said, it's something we have to do. We have no other choice."

Bueckers is leading UConn with 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 2.7 steals per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds per game. This season, Bueckers was coming off a rookie campaign in which she earned All-America honors, was named Big East Conference Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year and guided the Huskies to their 13th straight Final Four.

She collapsed with 38.5 seconds remaining in Sunday's victory over Notre Dame at Gampel Pavilion and underwent an MRI and CT scan. The results of the testing were announced Tuesday.

Westbrook said after the Tuesday practice, the team took the time to meet in the locker room.

"Just kind of like, 'Yo, we got to figure it out,'" Westbrook said. "We got to make it work. We have to just really play together and play our game. At the end of the day, we're still UConn. Everyone's still after us. No one's feeling bad for us. Whatever's on our chest, everyone's still after us and we have to play that way.

"We want to continue to win, continue to build, individually and as a group. I think this is going to be a big test for us."

Auriemma said he's not asking anyone to step up and try to be Bueckers, but that every member of the team is going to need to be at her best in the coming weeks. He said with the exception of the season-opener against Arkansas, UConn's defense has been "unbelievably good" and he likes the work the Huskies have done on their rebounding since a loss to top-ranked South Carolina on Nov. 22.

He called losing Bueckers, Fudd and Muhl at the same time "a real gut punch" and said certainly the team will look different without Bueckers' creativity at point guard.

Said Auriemma: "The last couple days have been really, really difficult on the entire program, mostly on Paige because she's the one most directly affected by this. For a kid that loves the game so much, loves to play, I don't think there's anything that you could do that's more hreatbreaking for a kid like that than to take the game away from her.

"... They say tough times make for tough people. We'll have to figure it out and I feel like we'll come back on the other side a lot better than we were going in. We just got to weather the storm. It's just going to be a long storm."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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