UConn’s Geno Auriemma managing life without Paige Bueckers, Nika Muhl: ‘Got to weather the storm’

Photo of Mike Anthony

These last few days, which Geno Auriemma considers among the most difficult of his career, were supposed to be about UConn adjusting to life without Paige Bueckers.

And they have been, mostly. The Huskies on Tuesday learned that Bueckers is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a tibial plateau fracture, an injury that brought all sorts of emotional and basketball complications into the 2021-22 equation.

But as Auriemma and his players wrapped their minds around that distressing reality, another setback popped up as an insult to the immediate ability to adapt. Nika Muhl, the sophomore guard expected to step in as point guard in Bueckers’ absence, will be sidelined, too — expected to miss about three weeks because she has been experiencing pain from a foot injury sustained last season.

UConn was already without freshman guard Azzi Fudd, who remains out with a foot issue of her own. So as the Huskies boarded a flight Wednesday afternoon they did so as a depleted bunch, particularly on the perimeter, set for a swing through Atlanta for Thursday’s game at Georgia Tech, straight on to Newark for Saturday’s game against UCLA and into a phase of the season that demands they reinvent themselves.

“When you lose somebody like Paige, if you have Nika available it takes some of the sting off,” Auriemma said. “If you have Azzi available, it takes some of the sting off. But when you throw in all three of them, that’s a real gut punch. Nobody is going to feel sorry for me. We’ve just got to weather the storm. It’s just going to be a long storm.”

The dark clouds started circling Sunday, when Bueckers was injured in the final minute of a victory over Notre Dame. She dribbled up court, jab-stepped as a defender started to approach and hyperextended her left leg.

Bueckers hobbled another 50 feet or so and fell to the court in front of the UConn bench with 38.5 seconds remaining. On Tuesday, UConn announced that an MRI and a CT scan had led to the diagnosis and shared the timeline for recovery from one of the program’s most impactful injury in years.

Auriemma and UConn have been through situations like this before.

Just not in a while.

“We’ve had our share of unfortunate things happen to some great, great players, going back to whether it was Shea Ralph on an undefeated season that derailed us, or Nykesha Sales on Senior Night, Svetlana (Abrosimova) at Tennessee her senior year, Shea in the Big East Tournament, Sue Bird her freshman year,” Auriemma said of players whose seasons and/or careers were cut short due to lower-body injuries. “But that’s part of sports. There’s not a coach that has gone unscathed with these things. The last couple days have been really, really difficult on the entire program — mostly on Paige, because she’s the one directly affected by this. For a kid that loves the game so much and loves to play, I don’t think there’s anything you could do that’s more heartbreaking for a kid like that than to take the game away from her regardless of how long.”

Bueckers, last season’s national player of the year as a freshman, leads the Huskies in minutes per game (36.3), points per game (21.2), assists (6.2) and steals (2.7). She is second in rebounding (5.5). She is the most visible, most celebrated player in the nation, her fame only accelerating with recent name, image and likeness campaigns. She is also, it could be argued, the most valuable player in the sport, the do-everything, say-everything, handle-everything sophomore that teammates with national championship aspirations — both younger and older — look up to.

UConn practiced Tuesday. Bueckers attended, observing and yelling from the sideline.

“I wouldn’t say she’s doing great,” said senior guard Evina Westbrook, now likely the primary ball-handler. “She’s definitely keeping her spirits high. She’s at practice, using her voice, being there for us. She knows how impactful that is for us, just to be able to tell us what she sees. It’s a different voice than the coaches’ voice. It’s our teammate’s voice. But off the court, it’s hard. I went through two (injuries) with my knee. So I’ve been there. I’m just telling her, ‘Hey, it really is going to be OK. Everything is going to work out.’

“I know for her, it can get overwhelming. She has so many voices, so many people who support her, just her platform in itself. So I think it can get overwhelming but I think she’s handled it tremendously, like she does pretty much everything.”

The third-ranked Huskies (5-1) are also dealing with the absence of junior forward Aubrey Griffin, who has yet to make her season debut due to ankle and back issues. Griffin tried to practice Tuesday and again Wednesday but couldn’t. Auriemma did not sound optimistic that she would be available against Georgia Tech or UCLA. The team’s next game is Dec. 19 against Louisville at Mohegan Sun Arena.

This is not an easy stretch. The starters Thursday are likely to be Westbrook and Christyn Williams in the backcourt, with Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa up front and Caroline Ducharme, the freshman who broke out for 14 points in 14 minutes against Notre Dame, on the wing. The bench would feature three post players — grad transfer Dorka Juhasz, freshman Amari DeBerry and sophomore Piath Gabriel — and one guard, sophomore Mir McLean.

DeBerry has not appeared in a game this season. McLean has played six minutes, Gabriel two.

There is just so much right now, on a select few. UConn has gone from feeling like it might have one of its deepest teams in years to having to use Scotch tape for roster construction before Christmas presents.

“When these situations happen, you don’t need somebody to become something they are not,” Auriemma said. “(Players) just need to become the best version of themselves. So we need Evina at her best. Whatever her best game has been since she got to UConn, that’s what we need every game. Whatever Christyn’s best game has been since she’s been at UConn, we need that every game. We don’t need them to try to be Paige. And we need Caroline to do the same thing. Whatever it was that contributed to Sunday’s performance in that fourth quarter, we need that consistently now. And that’s always been my approach. I’m not looking for somebody to come in and say, ‘Now I have to be Paige,’ because now you’re asking people to do something that is unfair.”

When Bueckers went down, the team gathered around her. Westbrook and DeBerry carried her to the bench. Fudd and trainer Janelle Francisco held her up through the handshake line. Williams said she baked chocolate chip cookies recently for Bueckers, trying to cheer her up.

“I’m hurt,” said Williams, one of Bueckers’ roommates. “Paige is one our leaders on the floor. She’s my point guard. She’s my friend. She’s my sister. I’m very sad for her. But I know she’s strong and she’ll be back.”

“Everyone’s role is going to be intensified,” Westbrook said. “We’re still UConn. Everyone is still after us. No one is feeling bad for us. Everyone is after us and we have to play that way.”

UConn is without its best two shooters, Bueckers and Fudd. The Huskies, by their standards, have been inconsistent up and down the lineup. As much as Bueckers’ absence and the overall state of the roster is a challenge, it is also an opportunity.

“As I said to them when we talked about it, you’re not asking them to do something they’re not capable of doing and you’re not asking them to do something they haven’t already done at other times in their career,” Auriemma said. “So I think that should be some sort of confidence builder or a sense of reassurance for them that now, ‘Coach isn’t imposing all these unrealistic expectations on me, he’s just expecting me to be at my best.’ Whatever that best is, that’s what I need you to be. You just need to be that on a really, really, really consistent basis.”

Westbrook said there was an important team meeting Tuesday after practice.

“We had all just went to the locker room, just kind of like, ‘Yo, we’ve got to figure it out; we’ve got to make it work,’” Westbrook said. “We need to find something where we can just get into the rhythm of things. It was good not just for us seniors to be part of that conversation, but for everyone to be part of that conversation. Everyone is going to have to step up. No matter if you are a starter, were a starter, no matter if you’re a big guy, a guard. Everyone has to step up with their voice, with their actions.”

Auriemma will soon find out how his team will react.

When Abrosimova (toe) and Ralph (ACL) were lost late in the 2000-01 season, UConn put freshman Diana Taurasi in the starting lineup and were fine until a Final Four loss to Notre Dame in which Taurasi shot 1 for 15 and the Huskies blew a 16-point lead.

“We were the best team in America by 100 miles in 1997,” Auriemma said. “And then in the first NCAA tournament game, Shea tore her ACL. Just running after a pass, trying to catch a pass. And the entire team reacted horribly to that. They actually reacted as if someone had passed away, and it cost us in the NCAA tournament.”

UConn, previously undefeated, lost to Tennessee in the Elite Eight that season.

“We could have won had we handled it differently,” Auriemma said. “So I think it’s, how mature is your team? … It depends on the maturity of players, their level of confidence, their accepting a challenge, ‘Hey, regardless of who I think I am or what I think I am, now’s the time to step up and prove why I’m at Connecticut. Some teams are better at that than others. Some kids are better at that than others. Generally speaking, teams rally around that kind of thing. And if it was only Paige, I think it would obviously be much easier. But it’s not just Paige. So it makes our job that much more difficult. It doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It doesn’t mean we can’t have the same level of success. It’s just going to be much more difficult.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst