Unassuming Ducharme has provided Huskies with a major lift
Storrs — The UConn women had a closed scrimmage during the preseason against Boston College during which freshman Caroline Ducharme scored 24 points — "so I envision that every time I put Caroline in the game she's going to try to score," coach Geno Auriemma said.
But just how good did Auriemma think Ducharme would be?
Good enough to take over the team during an 10-game stretch midseason when the Huskies were reeling due to injuries, forging her way into the starting lineup? Good enough so that with a Big East Conference game at DePaul on the line, Auriemma could draw up a play for Ducharme and she would score the game-winner with 1.6 seconds remaining?
"She made second team All-Big East," Auriemma said this week. "Did I envision her doing that? Maybe not but she's a tough kid and makes winning plays. That's the best thing you can say about a player: she makes winning plays."
UConn, ranked fifth in the country, begins play in the NCAA tournament at 1 p.m. Saturday as the No. 2 seed in the Bridgeport Region. The Huskies (25-5) take on 15th-seeded Mercer (23-6) in the first round at Gampel Pavilion, with another first-round game between No. 7 Central Florida (25-3) and No. 10 (21-10) Florida to follow.
The Huskies had to find their direction this season, sometimes competing with six players.
The unassuming Ducharme might have been the least likely candidate for a starring role. She appeared caught off guard at times when, after a basket and a foul, sophomore Nika Muhl came crashing into her with a chest bump.
Ducharme, a 6-foot-2 guard from Milton, Mass., who scored more than 2,000 points in her career at Noble and Greenough in nearby Dedham, was the fifth-ranked player in the nation in the high school Class of 2021 and a McDonald's, WBCA and SLAM All-American. But UConn also had the No. 1-ranked player in the class in Azzi Fudd.
Still, no one on the roster seemed surprised when Ducharme rattled off 24 points in a loss to then-No. 6 Louisville in December and followed in seven of the next eight games with 17 points or more, including a career-high 28 at St. John's on Jan. 23.
"Caroline's not afraid of anything, she's not afraid of anybody, any moment," UConn sophomore Paige Bueckers said. "She just has a really great mentality about basketball. I think earlier in the season, I mean in the Bahamas she didn't play a lot and then people got injured and she got her opportunity and she ran with it."
Said Auriemma: "Ever since the Notre Dame game (Dec. 5 when Bueckers suffered a serious knee injury), hell, if we didn't have (Ducharme), that's what I said, we might not make the (NCAA) tournament."
Ducharme's family is immersed in athletics. Her dad, Todd, played football and ran track at Division III Williams College and her mom, Chrissy, scored 1,000 career points at Noble and Greenough and later at Williams.
Caroline's sister, Ashley, a 6-foot-1 forward, recently finished her senior season at Brown University. Her younger brother, Reid, is a junior at Brewster Academy in Wolfboro, N.H., a 6-foot-6 guard with Division I scholarship offers from UConn, Syracuse, Stanford and Providence.
Noble and Greenough wasn't widely known necessarily for its basketball, yet there was nowhere else Ducharme wanted to go.
"My mom went there," Ducharme said. "She was the first girl to score 1,000 points. She did really well there. My sister was there; growing up I always wanted to do what my sister did. I wanted to play with her; I played AAU with her. So I think I saw how much she loved it and I wanted to go.
"Also, it doesn't get the amount of national recognition that a lot of schools do, but it's the best basketball program in New England. The culture and the way that they play ... I love my high school coach, my teammates. I think just, obviously I didn't want to leave home so early so I wanted to stay near home."
Ducharme missed part of her freshman year in high school with a torn ACL and her entire sophomore season with a torn labrum. Still, she was the two-time Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year and finished her career with 2,092 points.
Upon her arrival at UConn, Auriemma began talking about the stoic freshman immediately.
"She's like Carla Berube sneaky," Auriemma said on UConn's first day of practice, comparing Ducharme to the 1997 UConn grad. "You know, when Carla walked in the room, she didn't scare anybody, but there were things she did on the floor that at the end of the game you would go, 'Huh, I didn't know that.'
"(Ducharme) has that same quality of it's not loud — she doesn't have a loud game — but her quiet game is very efficient."
Time to shine
It was after Bueckers' injury on Dec. 5 — the All-American would miss 19 games — that UConn had a shortage at the guard spot, with Muhl and Fudd also sidelined. There were three guards remaining, seniors Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook and Ducharme.
Ducharme played 29 minutes in the next game at Georgia Tech, double her season high. On three occasions after that, she played 40 minutes, with Auriemma unwilling to take his new leading scorer off the floor.
She missed four games from Feb. 6-13 after suffering a head injury, but has recently regained her form. Ducharme averages 11.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game and has made 31 3-point field goals. During an 11-game span from Dec. 11 to Feb. 2, she averaged 17.6 points per game.
"I don't know if I would say I was necessarily comfortable right away," Ducharme said. "I think it's definitely a big adjustment coming here and it's very different from high school. I just think the atmosphere of the team and the upper classmen especially, just kind of helping you along, that was huge for me."
"We all knew what she was capable of and we're really happy for her," Bueckers said of Ducharme, who now begins her first NCAA tournament. "I think it was easy to be able to get negative and down on herself when she wasn't playing as much at first. Caroline being Caroline, she stepped up and owned the moment."
No. 2 UCONN vs. No. 15 MERCER
NCAA tournament first round
Location: Gampel Pavilion
Tip: 1:06 p.m. (Ch. 8)
Records: Mercer 23-6 overall, UConn 25-5.
Last game: Mercer beat Furman in the Southern Conference final March 6 73-54; UConn beat Villanova in the Big East Conference tournament final March 7 70-40.
Last game's starters: Mercer, 5-6 G Amoria Neal-Tysor (17.0 ppg, 3.1 apg), 5-6 G Erin Houpt (9.2 ppg), 6-0 G/F Shannon Titus (11.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.8 apg), 6-0 F Jaron Dougherty (10.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.4 apg), 6-2 F Allie Thayne (2.7 ppg).
UConn, 6-3 F Aaliyah Edwards (7.9 ppg), 6-5 F Olivia Nelson-Ododa (9.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.8 bpg), 5-10 G Nika Muhl (4.1 ppg, 2.9 apg, 1.6 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (14.6 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 spg), 5-11 G Azzi Fudd (12.4 ppg).
Noteworthy: Mercer coach Susie Gardner was talking about Southern Conference three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Shannon Titus, a fifth-year senior for the Bears who owns the team's career record for steals with 282. "Three time. That doesn't happen a lot. Three time," Gardner said. "She's long. She's 6-foot." Titus usually matches up against the other team's best guard, which left Gardner wondering ... who on UConn, ranked fifth in the nation, will Titus match up with Saturday? "Now I'm stuck with, I'm looking at all of UConn's guards ... you don't just have two. It's almost like you have to, like you have a Secret Santa and you put four names in a bag and you shake 'em up and I say, 'OK, Shannon will guard her the first quarter, her the second quarter ..." Such is the scenario Mercer will face against UConn, which is trying to extend its streak of Final Four appearances to 14. The Huskies are healthy, with all 11 players on their roster available, including reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers, who missed 19 games with an injury. UConn rolled to the Big East tournament title with a 70-40 win over Villanova. And the Huskies, who will have the home court advantage, held six of their last eight opponents to 40 points or fewer. "It's been great having everybody back," said UConn senior Christyn Williams, the Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player. "We're so grateful that everybody's healthy now. It just makes everything more fun and easier. ... We need to set the tone early. We need to throw the first punch. In this tournament anything can happen so we want to take advantage of starting out well early." ... Mercer's 3-point field goal defense ranks fifth in the country, yielding just a 24.9% success rate. ... This marks the farthest north in the contiguous United States that Mercer has played a game since competing in Orono, Maine, in 1994 and 1995. ... UConn is appearing as a No. 2 seed for the fifth time in NCAA tournament history and is 22-3 all-time in that role. ... The UConn-Mercer winner will face the winner of Saturday's game between No. 7 Central Florida and No. 10 Florida. The second-round game will be played Monday at Gampel Pavilion at a time to be announced.
— Vickie Fulkerson
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