Hard work pays off for Bueckers, UConn women's basketball freshmen

Published on Thursday, 4 February 2021 20:51
Written by CARL ADAMEC


STORRS - There’s no denying that the UConn women’s basketball team has won a lot of games the past three decades because of its talent.

But those 11 national championships and 20 Final Four appearances along with the 51 conference regular season and tournament titles didn’t come without a lot of hard work. The Huskies, it seems, get outworked not much more often than they lose back-to-back games.

Former Louisville guard Becky Burke, now the coach at USC-Upstate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said this after one of UConn’s most-dominant teams beat the Cardinals for the 2009 NCAA title.

“They have great talent. They’re blessed. They have a great coach. But they’re not good because they just go out and play. They’re good because they get in the gym and work. That’s something a lot of people don’t do. They don’t dedicate themselves like that.

“There’s no doubt that we can work harder. If you asked some of our players if they got in the gym as much as the UConn players? No. Our entire team is not in the gym as much as Maya Moore. You don’t get that good just by showing up. They live in the gym. They’re dedicated. That’s why they’re at Connecticut and why they’re national champions.”

It’s not like every UConn player that walks into the Werth Champions Center or steps on the court at Gampel Pavilion has the work ethic needed to succeed. Most learn it. Some never get it.

The Huskies’ current freshman class - led by Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Mir McLean, and Nika Muhl - has shown through 13 games that they get it. They had what is their finest two hours as a group Wednesday in a 94-62 Big East home win over St. John’s.

“Going by the new basketball world we live in today, these guys are regular John Havliceks,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “When you go by what you see out there and how the play is just so vanilla, trying to up the intensity level to what I call a Connecticut level is not the easiest thing in the world. The younger you are the more difficult it is most times. Aaliyah has it. Nika has it. Mir can have it at times when she’s got it going. For sure they have it.

“Paige has it in a different way. So where do they stack up among a bunch of other freshman? It is hard to say. But in today’s world where you’re great because you’re great … they’re great.”

Odds are only a minority of the freshmen could tell you who John Havlicek was. But all the Boston Celtics’ Hall of Famer did was perform and work and hustle and, oh yeah, win.

With Christyn Williams out with a left ankle injury and Aubrey Griffin limited to 1:46 with right knee pain, Auriemma started three freshmen for the first time since Feb. 20, 1999, when Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones, and Keirsten Walters took the floor for the opening tip at Georgetown’s McDonough Arena.

Bueckers (32), Edwards (22), and Muhl (11) responded with season highs in points. Bueckers and Muhl combined for 13 assists and Edwards grabbed eight rebounds. Off the bench, McLean had seven points, eight rebounds and three assists while walk-on Autumn Chassion capped off the night with a 3-pointer.

When newcomer Saylor Poffenbarger checked in with 2:40 to go in the third quarter, the Huskies were playing with five freshmen.

“It was really fun,” Bueckers said. “Obviously we’re very close off the court but we’re getting that chemistry on the court as well. It’s really just fun to play with them. They bring so much energy and so much competitiveness.

“They’re workhorses. They run very hard. They’re vocal. As freshmen, you don’t really expect us to talk a lot, but I feel like they talk a whole bunch. Just the little stuff they do, I’m not surprised by what they’re doing in games, because it’s what we see in practice every day.”

Muhl got her second start and has strung together four good outings since her DNP-coach’s decision at Tennessee on Jan. 21. She was 3-for-4 from behind the arc and her assists (6) and steals (3) were also season highs.

“It really felt good,” Muhl said. “I think just our relationship on and off the court translates well into games. We’re so comfortable with each other and we read each other well. It was fun, and I’m looking forward to playing with them more.”

Auriemma is hopeful his team will be 100 percent for its game Friday at Marquette.

If not, he’ll put the games in the hands of his freshmen.

“I did look out there at one point and there were four freshmen and one high school kid,” Auriemma said. “Now all five of them are here at UConn all playing at the same time, and they looked like they knew what they were doing. Paige looked like their ring leader and they seemed to have a little bit of fun out there and played some really, really good minutes. Let’s just hope we can keep building on that.”

It is still a work in progress.

Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Thursday, 4 February 2021 20:51. Updated: Thursday, 4 February 2021 20:53.