UConn women roll past St. John’s behind team’s two ‘silver linings’ Ducharme, Nelson-Ododa

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

QUEENS, N.Y. — UConn was hit with injury after injury before the holidays, including losing last year’s national player of the year in Paige Bueckers (tibial plateau fracture, torn meniscus). The Huskies were then welcomed to the new year with a program-wide COVID-19 shutdown only to be followed by senior Christyn Williams getting placed under protocols because of the virus two weeks later.

On Sunday at St. John’s, the team’s two silver linings that have come through the past two months carried the No. 9-ranked Huskies through another dominant Big East victory. UConn defeated the Red Storm 75-57 at Carnesecca Arena thanks to career games from freshman Caroline Ducharme and senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa — the two players who have stepped up and benefited the most among the team’s injuries and illnesses.

“Right now we’re going through hell in a lot of ways,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “(They’re) things that have never happened to UConn basketball, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t wallow in pity or anything like that. Every team is struggling the last couple years. So we’re going through a bad spot, but we’re finding a way to drag each other along with us. We’ve become more of a team, I think, in the last two weeks.”

The Huskies showed improved 3-point shooting and defense, yet still struggled with consistency as Ducharme again came to the team’s rescue and Nelson-Ododa continued her streak of playing some of the best basketball of her career.

Ducharme led the Huskies Sunday with a career-high 28 points followed by Nelson-Ododa with a career-high 18 rebounds and a career-high 10 assists. Grad transfer Dorka Juhász (formerly Ohio State) also tied her UConn career-high with 16 points. As a team, the Huskies shot 7 of 23 from the 3-point line and outrebounded the Red Storm 45-22.

After poor 3-point shooting in its last two games (8 of 11 at Oregon, 6 of 30 against Seton Hall), UConn looked much better from the arc Sunday. Instead of rushing shots, players passed the ball around until the right player became available. At halftime on Sunday, UConn was 5 of 12 from the 3-point line, including two from senior Evina Westbrook who hadn’t made more than one in a game since Jan. 12.

Also in the growth column of takeaways: UConn’s defense looked much more organized against the Red Storm. Led by the vocal directing of Nika Mühl, UConn held St. John’s to 5 of 15 shooting in the second quarter and had 15 defensive rebounds compared to St. John’s two offensive boards. The sophomore from Croatia dove after every lose ball and finished with a game-high four steals.

UConn took advantage of the Red Storm’s offensive struggles. An 18-3 Husky run overlapped the end of the first quarter and the begining of the second as the Huskies kept St. John’s from scoring until about four minutes into the second. UConn led by as much as 14 thanks to back-to-back 3s from Westbrook and Ducharme before closing the first half ahead 42-31.

However, halfway through third quarter, UConn appeared to run out of gas. Passes were intercepted and derailed (one from Mühl almost hit the back of Aaliyah Edwards’ head while another zoomed past Nelson-Ododa out of bounds) as the Huskies’ shooting slump reappeared. By the media timeout at 4:48, the Red Storm had made 22 points off UConn’s nine turnovers, three of which happened in the half’s opening two minutes.

Enter Nelson-Ododa and Ducharme.

The Red Storm had brought down UConn’s 16-point lead to nine before Ducharme (who scored just seven points on Friday) came to UConn’s rescue and made three-straight to close the quarter with a then-game-high 21 points. Back-to-back 3s from Ducharme and Juhász got UConn’s momentum back as it closed the game on a 14-4 run.

“She’s not afraid of the moments,” Auriemma said of Ducharme. “She just plays. (It’s a) silver lining right? Who would have thought that she’d be doing this. (If) nobody gets hurt and everybody stays the way it is, maybe she doesn’t get an opportunity to play this many minutes. So, we found something. We knew she was good, but we found out that she was really really good.”

Despite scoring just three points (a season low), Nelson-Ododa controlled the game from the under the basket. She grabbed down rebounds and immediately dished the ball to an open player. In the final eight minutes of the game, the senior recorded seven of her career-high 18 boards.

“Liv was responsible for what? 20-something points at least. So, it’s not she didn’t score. The passes that she threw led to scores,” Auriemma said. “Everybody’s got to do what they’re really really good at. Especially now when we’re down a bunch of guys. ... We got to have their best selves every night because anything else wouldn’t be enough. I think Liv gave us her best self tonight and we all benefited from it.”

Ducharme’s and Nelson-Ododa’s progression are positive lights for a UConn team that has been hit with its fair share of injuries and COVID shutdowns.

“We have a pretty good thing going and I think when they (the injured and sick players) come back, just keep building on it and just bring them in. Just keep going as a team,” Juhász said. “We have to find ways to beat really good teams with six, seven, eight players, what we have, so I think it’s gonna be like ‘Hey, we gotta keep going and just gotta bring that one by one and just keep as a team moving together.’ I think that’s going to be really important.”

One of UConn’s biggest differences? Instead of Bueckers running point, Mühl will be in charge of play-calling for the Huskies.

Mühl played just three minutes in UConn’s loss to South Carolina in the Bahamas. Since then the sophomore missed three games with a foot injury and upon her return has played the most minutes of her Husky career. The 5-10 guard played her first 40-minute game last Monday at Oregon and, five days later, made a career-high seven rebounds and three 3-pointers against Seton Hall on Friday in Storrs. On Sunday, the sophomore again played 40 minutes and finished with nine points, four steals and five rebounds.

Auriemma has said he doesn’t want Mühl playing a full game, and has limited her minutes in practice to help lessen the load, but that she’s needed on court to help bring a high level of energy to every possession.

“You certainly notice her when she’s on the floor. There’s a presence that she has in a way that very people do. It doesn’t have to translate into points or rebounds or steals,” he said. “She does the little things that keep a team together. Yeah, I don’t want to play her 40 minutes, I really don’t. I’m hoping that when Christyn comes back that we can get back to a normal amount of minutes for her.”


Williams was with the team Sunday in Queens, but did not participate in warms up or play in the game. The senior is coming off COVID protocols.

“Before you practice you have to go through a period where you reacclimate and I think that’s usually four or five days,” Auriemma said. “Right now, we’re hoping to hear that she’ll be available on Thursday, but I don’t get to make that decision. But she’ll start doing something (in practice) right away.”

Aubrey Griffin rejoined the team Sunday. The junior, assisted by a cane, walked around the gym during warm ups and surprised her teammates in the locker room prior to the game. Griffin, an Ossining, N.Y. native, is sitting out this season after having back surgery on Jan. 10 to fix a disc injury.

UP NEXT: UConn will travel to DePaul for a game Wednesday at 8 p.m. The Huskies’ game at South Carolina scheduled for Thursday has been canceled. The DePaul game will serve as a reschedule for the teams’ originally scheduled date on Dec. 31, which was canceled due to COVID issues within the UConn program. TV designation is to be announced.