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    UConn Women's Basketball
    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    No. 11 UConn women set to restart the season with a 'new identity'

    UConn guard Nika Muhl (10) returns from a football injury when the No. 11 Huskies host Big East leader Creighton at Gampel Pavilion, although she will be limited to just 15 minutes of action. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    The big picture is ever at the forefront. The No. 11 UConn women's basketball team has not played a game since a loss to Louisville on Dec. 19, the past four games postponed due to issues with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, four members of the Huskies having dealt with the virus since the Christmas break.

    But now, with only eight players available and what UConn coach Geno Auriemma predicts will be a rotation of "six-and-a-half," the question is what will the immediate future look like, namely Sunday's Big East Conference game against first-place Creighton (1 p.m., SNY)?

    "Individuals, I'm sure, have got the chance to work on some things but as a team? No. Hardly at all," Auriemma said on a Zoom call Friday. "It's hard. You have six players. We had six from the time we got back on the 26th until about five days ago.

    "Going five-on-five full court was just not an option. Can you go three-on-three? Yeah. Can you go some four-on-four. Yeah. But other than that no."

    UConn redshirt senior Evina Westbrook attests to the fact there's been some positives, though.

    When UConn sophomore sensation Paige Bueckers, the consensus national player of the year as a freshman, was injured on Dec. 5, the Huskies faced a quick turnaround without their star and leading scorer, falling at Georgia Tech on Dec. 9.

    UConn bounced back with a win Dec. 11 vs. UCLA in a tournament in Newark, N.J., banding together to keep intact a streak of more than 1,000 consecutive games without back-to-back losses before falling to then-No. 6 Louisville 69-64 on the 19th.

    The Huskies hadn't much time to adjust without Bueckers, also without guards Nika Muhl (right foot) and Azzi Fudd (right foot) to help fill the void at guard.

    Could this break have given the team the time it need to regroup?

    "It definitely has been frustrating. It sucks, just for games getting canceled and obviously not being able to play and practice, practice, practice," Westbrook said. "I think in the long run it's been beneficial, getting the chance to work on things that we haven't been able to work on so much.

    "I think just moving our offense. I think a lot of the times we can get stagnant and people are just confused on where to go or the next move. So just really moving and communication has been a huge emphasis since we've been back since Christmas."

    Westbrook said the three-on-three and four-on-four configurations can be harder, at times, than playing five-on-five.

    "Having to move and having to be in the same defensive spots or offensive spots as if we're playing five-on-five," Westbrook said. "So I think when we get five people out there it's actually going to be easier than when we play three-on-three, four-on-four.

    "... The coaches don't really switch up how they coach at all. We're going to run the same drills, the practice plan is going to stay the same whether we have two people out there, four people out there or we have all of us out there. In the end, we gotta push through."

    Muhl returns to the lineup Sunday, but with a limit of 15 minutes. Auriemma believes that will be a turning point in UConn's progress until the rest of the injuries have time to heal. Bueckers, who had surgery on Dec. 13 after suffering a tibial plateau fracture in her left leg, was scheduled to miss eight weeks from the time of her surgery and Auriemma said Friday her recovery was on schedule.

    Auriemma said the Notre Dame game, in which Bueckers was injured, seems like about a year ago.

    "It's just a lot to deal with that and then you throw on top of that the COVID issues, so now not only are you dealing without your best player, but now you're not getting a chance to try to put the other pieces together and make it work," Auriemma said.

    "... Right now we're hoping with these last couple days we've had of trying to get better and as we start playing some games and the games start coming in a rhythm, that we'll be able to kind of develop an identity to this new team we have now until we get everybody back."

    UConn (6-3 overall, 1-0 Big East) is led by Christyn Williams with 13.8 points, Westbrook with 10.1 points and 3.9 assists and Olivia Nelson-Ododa with 7.4 rebounds. Graduate transfer Dorka Juhasz had 16 points and 16 rebounds in the win over UCLA and freshman Caroline Ducharme had a breakout game against Louisville with 24 points and eight rebounds.

    Creighton (10-3, 5-0) is led by 6-foot-1 sophomore forward Emma Ronsiek with 12.4 points per game. The Bluejays, who have won four straight, are coming off a 62-45 victory over Marquette on Friday led by 15 points from 5-10 sophomore guard Lauren Jensen, including three 3-pointers.

    v.fulkerson@theday.com 

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