UNCASVILLE, Conn. — With confetti still on his shoulders, coach Geno Auriemma walked toward his UConn players huddled nearby in a semicircle and started to dance. The Huskies had just won their 10th consecutive and 28th overall conference tournament title, and with trophy in hand, Auriemma was attempting to do the Griddy, the viral dance trend. It was more of a shimmy as he bounced around and flailed his arms. But the Huskies joined in on the fun, egged him on with cheers and sprinkled more confetti over him, appearing pleasantly astounded at the totally relaxed behavior of their notoriously demanding coach.
Given the tumultuous season the Huskies have had, starting March with a championship meant even more than usual.
“For the next couple days, I think we’re just going to take a deep breath and let it all come out,” said Auriemma, whose 11-time national champion Huskies seek their 15th consecutive Final Four. “We held a lot in.”
“Complicated” was Auriemma’s word of choice last year when describing the 2021-22 season, when then-reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers missed 19 games with a knee injury, former No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd sat 11 with a foot issue and a slew of other players missed time for injuries or illnesses. Still, UConn managed to stay the course to advance to the national championship match, where it fell to South Carolina and Auriemma suffered his first loss in an NCAA title game.
This year? “I can’t even find one word to describe it,” Auriemma said.
The best metaphor that comes to mind, for him, is a Shakespearean play. Each act contains its own epic story. This season has been eerily similar to last year, but it’s a stretch no one was interested in reliving. And while familiar, it came with added severity, including personal ramifications for Auriemma.
There was the high of June, when with their full complement of players, optimism abounded in Storrs that the Huskies could avenge their loss in the 2022 national championship game. The low of August, when Bueckers, looking better than ever after fully recovering from her knee injury, was lost for the 2022-23 season to an ACL tear. The high of November, when the Huskies established themselves as a national title contender with multiple wins over ranked teams and dominated the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, with Fudd’s breakout brilliance on full display.
And then, the depths of December, January and February: Fudd, who was an early national player of the year contender, injured her knee, returned and then in her second game back, hurt it again. Players suffered concussions, broken bones, contracted COVID-19 — leaving, at one point, a potential Final Four-caliber lineup sitting on the bench.
There was the downright bizarre: Associate head coach Chris Daily fainted on-court before a game in November. A blizzard prevented a player from rejoining the team after the holidays. A game was postponed in January because the Huskies couldn’t suit up enough players.
And there was the historical, as the Huskies lost back-to-back games for the first time in 30 years and accumulated uncharacteristic conference losses before they clinched an anticlimactic Big East regular-season title as the postseason neared.
In December, Geno’s mother, Marsiella Auriemma, died at age 91. A run-down Auriemma stepped away on two occasions, for four games total, as he processed the loss and focused on his health.
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The stretch was so destabilizing it prompted the Naismith Hall of Fame coach to reconsider how he has operated for 30-plus years. In an empty locker room in the bowels of Mohegan Sun Arena, he whispered to reporters, “I think we stopped trying to be perfect.”
That, of course, seemed counterfactual given how nearly flawless UConn played for most of the Big East tournament. The Huskies routed Georgetown and Marquette by 30 and 29 points, respectively, and led No. 10 Villanova by 25 in the final before the Wildcats made the score more respectable in the fourth quarter.
The tournament wasn’t simply a memo to the rest of the country that UConn is in March-mode. It was a conclusion of an act, one Auriemma was thrilled “ended the right way.”
“We had to go through all these [moments of adversity] but I always thought that if we’re going to have to suffer through all this, there’s got to be something good at the end,” Auriemma said. “And that’s what I kept saying to the team. With everything that happened that was going bad, I said nobody deserves to be dealt this hand. So there must be something at the end.”
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What the next and final act of the 2022-23 season holds remains to be seen. The UConn standard: Final Four appearances and national championships. And with key players back — chiefly Fudd, but also fellow sophomore Caroline Ducharme — hope has returned to Storrs that UConn can make a meaningful run. If chalk holds, the No. 2 seed Huskies would have to get through two No. 1 seeds — ACC tournament champion Virginia Tech and Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana — and then face a rematch of the 2022 title game against the undefeated, defending champion and widely favored Gamecocks.
But as junior guard Nika Mühl told ESPN: “We’ve been broken so many times this year that we’re unbreakable now.”
Ahead of the Huskies’ first-round matchup against 15-seed Vermont on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App), here is a timeline of all the things that went wrong, and the things that still managed to go right, for UConn.
Aug. 1, 2022: Junior Paige Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year, suffers a torn ACL in her left knee during a summer pickup game. It’s the same knee she injured eight months prior (a lateral meniscus tear and tibial plateau fracture sidelined her for 19 games during the 2021-22 season). UConn announces the season-ending injury two days later and the guard undergoes surgery that week.
Aug. 26, 2022: Looking to shore up backcourt depth, the Huskies announce a late addition to the freshman class in Inês Bettencourt from Portugal. In a span of nine days, Bettencourt went from intending to play at the Northwest Florida State College to being recruited by and signing with UConn. Quipped Auriemma: “The flight over took longer than the recruiting process.”
Oct. 18, 2022: Junior Aaliyah Edwards reveals she had her nose broken in practice a few weeks ago after taking an elbow from Mühl. Edwards wears a face mask when the season begins — and decides to keep playing with it even after it is no longer needed.
Oct. 26, 2022: UConn announces freshman Ice Brady has dislocated her patella, underwent surgery and is ruled out for the 2022-23 season. Brady was the No. 5 overall recruit in the class of 2022, per ESPN.
Nov. 10, 2022: The Huskies rout Northeastern 98-39 in their season opener, but sophomore Caroline Ducharme misses the game due to neck stiffness. She makes her season debut in UConn’s second game of the season, versus Texas.
Nov. 14, 2022: UConn beats then-No. 3 Texas 83-76, but graduate student Dorka Juhász breaks her thumb during the game. She misses the next seven contests, four of which are against ranked opponents.
Nov. 20, 2022: Minutes before the Huskies are set to take on then-No. 10 NC State, longtime associate head coach Chris Dailey faints on-court upon the conclusion of the national anthem. After a brief delay, the game proceeds, and the Huskies trounce the Wolfpack 91-69. Dailey undergoes an assessment at UConn Health and is released that same afternoon.
Nov. 25-27, 2022: Despite being without Juhász, the Huskies make statement wins over Duke (28 points) and Caitlin Clark‘s then-No. 9 Iowa (seven points) at the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Oregon. UConn already has three wins over top-10 teams.
Dec. 4, 2022: After averaging 24.0 points per game on 54.4% shooting (43.5% on 3-pointers) through her first six games of the season — and earning buzz as a national player of the year candidate — sophomore Azzi Fudd injures her right knee in the first quarter of UConn’s road matchup at Notre Dame. The Huskies falter without her in the second half, losing 74-60 for their first defeat of the season. Fudd, who had a MCL and ACL tear in the same knee in high school, is later ruled out for 3-6 weeks.
Dec. 8, 2022: In the next game, Mühl suffers a concussion early in the second half against Princeton, while graduate student Lou Lopez-Sénéchal sits the game’s final four minutes after tweaking her foot. UConn is left with six available players and wards off a Tigers rally. Forced to play big minutes as the only available point guard, Bettencourt goes 3-for-4 from the free throw line in the final 25 seconds, ensuring UConn a 69-64 win despite 27 turnovers.
Unbeknownst to the public at the time, Geno Auriemma’s mother dies that night.
“We’ve been broken so many times this year that we’re unbreakable now.”
UConn junior guard Nika Mühl
Dec. 11, 2022: With Mühl sidelined, the Huskies have just seven players available in College Park. They keep the score mostly within two possessions in the fourth quarter, but their 22 turnovers and lack of scoring options catch up to them in a 85-78 loss to then-No. 20 Maryland. It’s longtime Terps coach Brenda Frese’s first career victory over UConn.
Dec. 18 and 21, 2022: Juhász returns from her thumb injury, but shortly before UConn takes on Florida State at Mohegan Sun, the school announces Auriemma will miss the game and Dailey will coach in his stead. Dailey later attributes Auriemma’s absence to flu-like symptoms and dehydration. Auriemma also sits out the next game versus Seton Hall, returning to the team after Christmas.
Dec. 28, 2022: The Huskies are once again short-handed as senior Aubrey Griffin contracts COVID-19 during the holidays and sophomore Amari DeBerry is unable to rejoin the team from her hometown of Buffalo as a severe snowstorm cancels flights. Still, UConn bests then-No. 21 Creighton 72-47 with only seven available players. While DeBerry is back for the next game, Griffin remains out for one more.
Jan. 2, 2023: Ducharme suffers a concussion in practice, ultimately missing 13 games and six weeks.
Jan. 3 and 5, 2023: Auriemma misses two more games, saying in a statement he feels “under the weather” and run down, needing more time to focus on his health. Dailey takes over for another pair of games and improves to 17-0 in her career when filling in for Auriemma.
Jan. 6, 2023: The Big East postpones UConn’s game versus DePaul because the Huskies don’t have the conference-required seven scholarship players available to play. In their previous game against Xavier, Patterson suffered a concussion and Edwards hurt her ankle when she ran into a row of chairs going after a loose ball, which sidelined her for the second half of the game. Edwards is good to go for their next game, while Patterson misses the next four.
Jan. 11, 2023: The Huskies return to action — with Auriemma and Fudd back. Fudd scores 14 points off the bench in her return, a 82-52 win over St. John’s.
Jan. 15, 2023: In her second game back after her initial injury, Fudd reinjures her knee in the first half against Georgetown. She’s deemed out indefinitely, though Auriemma later indicates she plans on returning at some point this season.
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End of January: Short-handed UConn surpasses expectations with a 45-point win over Seton Hall, a 43-point thrashing against DePaul and a convincing 17-point victory against Tennessee in Knoxville. Signs of fatigue start to show, however, when they barely close out No. 21 Villanova 63-58 at home.
Feb. 5, 2023: The Huskies narrowly fall to No. 1 South Carolina 81-77 in Hartford in a rematch of the 2022 national title game, which the Gamecocks also won. Auriemma says he feels better about his team postgame than he did going into it.
Feb. 8, 2023: With injuries, an overreliance on starters and fatigue catching up with them, UConn drops back-to-back games for the first time since March 1993 with a 59-52 road loss to Marquette. Auriemma later calls it their low point of the season.
Feb. 15, 2022: Ducharme makes her return, and her huge fourth quarter propels UConn over Creighton. She later tells reporters that while she has been cleared to play, she’s still dealing with residual symptoms from her concussion that require management. She’s often seen icing her head on the Huskies’ bench.
Feb. 21, 2022: Another historic loss, as UConn falls to St. John’s 69-64 in Hartford. The defeat marks the first time since the 2003-04 campaign the Huskies dropped multiple conference games to unranked teams in a single season.
Feb. 27, 2022: The Huskies clinch the Big East regular-season title with a 60-51 win over Xavier, which went winless in conference play. Juhász misses the matchup after spraining her ankle the game prior. For most of the past month, the Huskies stall offensively, produce a string of uncharacteristic 60-point outings and turnover-heavy performances and barely eke out wins over opponents they typically put away handily. From their Jan. 29 win over Villanova through the win over Xavier, all of their games are decided by 10 or fewer points.
Auriemma vents to media postgame that the team must “stop blaming fatigue” as an excuse and argues they’re being “selfish.”
March 4-6, 2023: It’s the Big East tournament. Juhász is good to play and Fudd is finally back in the lineup. And for the first time since the Nov. 14 game against Texas, the Huskies have all 10 players available. They don’t need Fudd much; Most Outstanding Player Edwards powers UConn to the tournament crown. With convincing wins over Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova, the Huskies’ February struggles appear gone.
They have a brief scare after Ducharme takes another hard hit to the head in the first half of the quarterfinal. She misses the remainder of that game but plays in the next two. Griffin experiences back spasms during the final and misses the second half of the championship. Auriemma tells reporters this week she hasn’t practiced much since the tournament.
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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