What Geno Auriemma, Paige Bueckers expect from UConn women’s basketball in March: ‘I’m not giving up’

UConn guard Paige Bueckers stands on the court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Nell Redmond/Associated Press

STORRS — A 1-in-a-million chance is still a chance, mind you, but those are the odds coach Geno Auriemma essentially gave the UConn women’s basketball team of winning a national championship this season.

His best player suggested it might take a miracle from above.

 

That’s not to say it would shock her.

“I know nobody thinks that we can win a national championship at this point, but I have a great faith as well,” Paige Bueckers said Thursday. “So I feel like with God, all things are possible, and he can help our team do amazing things.”

UConn is coming down the stretch of the latest injury-plagued season, the team dismantled this year even more so than it was each of the past two. Think of it this way: UConn’s list of players who are out for the season — Azzi Fudd, Ayanna Patterson, Jana El Alfy, Aubrey Griffin, Caroline Ducharme — would make a solid starting five for a highly-ranked team.

With so many players in street clothes and so few in the rotation — and so many sobering moments in times to measure potential — it would probably be unwise to expect any sort of eye-opening March achievement for a team with clear limitations.

Then, again, there’s that chance. Auriemma used a famous scene from the 1994 comedy “Dumb and Dumber” to describe it.

“I guess there’s still hope, though, for the season, right?” he said. “There was a six-loss team last year [Stanford] that was a number one seed, if I’m not mistaken. So there’s a chance, as Jim Carrey said.”

Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas, in that  “Dumb and Dumber” scene, asked his love interest, Lauren Holly’s Mary Swanson, what the odds were for a future together.

“Not good,” she said.

“You mean not good like one out of a hundred?”

“I’d say more like one out of a million.”

Christmas smiled. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance. Yeah!”

Anyway, Stanford did have six losses and Virginia Tech did make the Final Four last season with five losses, the same amount 15th-ranked UConn has through 26 games. The Huskies (21-5) were blown out at top-ranked South Carolina on Super Bowl Sunday and rebounded with a lopsided victory at lowly Xavier on Wednesday.

On Friday, four seniors will be honored at Gampel Pavilion after a game against Georgetown.  Bueckers, Nika Mühl, Aaliyah Edwards and Griffin all have the option to return, due to extra availability afforded by the NCAA to players affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bueckers, for instance, is expected to return, and Auriemma said Thursday that Griffin will return. though official word on all players’ status will come shortly after the season.

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Bueckers re-stated her curiosity about just how good this UConn team could be when everyone is healthy — which, of course, won’t be until next season. Is it time to start shifting thoughts to 2024-25? It will be the latest attempt for a roster of boundless potential to come together, injury free, and see how it truly stacks up against the rest of the nation.

“I’m not giving up on the season,” Bueckers said. “I know some people have, but I’m still very excited for what this team can achieve.”

UConn has five games remaining — vs. Georgetown, vs. Creighton Monday in Hartford, at DePaul Feb. 25, vs. Villanova Feb. 28 at Gampel and at Providence March 2. Then it’s on to the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that. If UConn can get through two rounds of games in its own building, as it should, and play exceptionally well in a regional, what are the odds that the team returns to the Final Four and even wins on that stage?

“Us at our absolute best, projecting that every player that we put out on the floor plays their A game — I mean, there are some teams out there, if the matchups are bad, we could play our A game and not win and get knocked out,” Auriemma said. “We could not play our best game and get knocked out by anybody, really. So obviously it’s different than some other years where we go into the NCAA Tournament and we win no matter if you play your A-plus game. We don’t have that luxury now and the margin is so small.

“The margin is just really, really thin, and everything would have to break right for us to go far in the tournament. The only way we can win against the best teams is we have to make open shots. It’s not like we’re going to kill them on the boards, we’re going to press them to death, whatever ways you can think of to win. We have to make shots. And if we do, then we give ourselves a chance. And that’s it. That’s about as close as I can get to describing it.”

UConn’s five losses are to good teams, the kind it will have to figure out how to beat if a Final Four appearance is in the offing. The Huskies fell to 4-3 with losses to NC State, UCLA and Texas, and Auriemma joked in early December about being on the bubble. He made the same joke Thursday. The situation is not dire. It’s just rare around here, for vulnerabilities, however they’re created, to be dragging down a team that is usually ramping things up as February turns to March.

The Huskies won 13 in a row before losing at home to Notre Dame Jan. 27. The loss at South Carolina, 83-65, wasn’t competitive. Depth was an issue for UConn, even without Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso unavailable.

But with a fresh start, with a chance, who really knows? The team with the best player on the court can never be discounted and UConn, with Bueckers, can have the best player on any given night.

The Huskies can make a run toward title No. 12. But it might take a miracle — and, certainly, a lot of 3-pointers.

“We don’t have the luxury of having five deep on the bench, players that can come in and do the same things as the starters,” Bueckers said. “But I feel like we have what it takes. It’s just about us cleaning up our mental mistakes, us believing in ourselves.”

 

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