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    UConn Women's Basketball
    Sunday, August 07, 2022

    Muhl brings a much-needed energy boost for No. 10 UConn women

    UConn guard Nika Muhl looks to make a pass during Wednesday's 92-47 Big East win over Butler in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

    Nika Muhl substituted into her her first game in more than a month on Sunday vs. Creighton and within 24 seconds picked up the first of her four fouls.

    Unfortunately timed? Maybe. But it was perhaps the best indication of the amount of urgency Muhl, the sophomore guard, brings to the floor for the UConn women's basketball team.

    "Yeah, it's a 180-degree difference when she's on the floor," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I knew that last year. If people remember correctly, when we inserted her into the starting lineup last year, that's when the team changed. There's a reason for that. Because what she brings is unique and she's the one player on our team that has it and I'm determined to take more advantage of it as the season goes on."

    No. 10 UConn (8-3 overall, 3-0 in the Big East) faces league opponent Xavier (6-8, 1-4) at the XL Center on Saturday(noon, SNY), the Huskies' first game in Hartford since a season-opening victory over Arkansas.

    Starting Saturday, fans of all UConn men's and women's basketball games must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 72 hours.

    Muhl missed three games while recovering from a right foot injury before returning with a 15-minute limit against Creighton. She finished with two points and three assists to go along with a few enthusiastic chest bumps.

    Auriemma came to a decision after that game. He started Muhl in Wednesday's 92-47 victory at Butler in Indianapolis, minutes limit and all. She immediately sped things up, a lightning bolt as the Huskies rolled to their biggest point differential of the season. Muhl didn't score but took over the point guard position, which has had a vacancy since the injury to sophomore national player of the year Paige Bueckers, finishing with a team-high five assists, three rebounds and a steal in 17 minutes.

    The time she played point guard allowed redshirt senior Evina Westbrook, who had taken over the position, more time to shoot. Westbrook finished with 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting with three 3-point field goals.

    UConn has never lost with Muhl in the starting lineup, going 15-0 in that situation last year before Muhl, the 5-foot-10 spitfire from Zagreb, Croatia, sprained her right ankle in the NCAA tournament opener against High Point.

    "First things first, we just need her to get healthy," Westbrook said last week of Muhl's return. "She gives us another ballhandler — thank God. Able to bring the ball up and just get us into stuff. Run plays for us. Another great passer. Another great communicator. Great screener as well. She's been great coming back in practice."

    "She has an infectious quality about her and an intensity about her ," Auriemma said. "Having her in the lineup, having her available to play, I really think that's going to be one of the big contributing factors as to how we can keep winning between now and when we get our whole team back."

    The tempo, the energy, was certainly a factor against Butler.

    Auriemma said that while UConn was overall just a more talented team than 1-12 Butler, the Huskies shook off what he called a "general malaise" to play the best game he's seen from them in quite some time.

    "Everybody's been affected and everybody plays numb," Auriemma said, referring to the shellshock of having seasons stopped and started by COVID and at times playing in front of no fans. "There's no joy, there's no fun. Maybe that's just the way life is today but I don't want to be one of those teams. I don't want us to act like one of those teams. I want to be different and I think they went out there today (against Butler) and they tried to be different."

    "I liked how we were able to push the ball in transition tonight and just kind of get up the floor," UConn's Olivia Nelson-Ododa said. "I feel like that's one part of our game that we really haven't tapped into our full potential this season. I think it was great energy."

    Williams and Nelson-Ododa had 19 points each against Butler, while Williams added seven rebounds, seven steals and four assists, and Nelson-Ododa finished with seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. UConn made 19 steals in the game and had 43 points off turnovers.

    Xavier is coming off a 54-49 loss to Providence on Tuesday, led by 17 points from 5-10 sophomore guard Mackayla Scarlett.

    UConn will next play at Oregon at 5 p.m. Monday on ESPN2.

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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