HARTFORD - A âWhite Outâ was planned for the UConn womenâs basketball teamâs game with Tennessee Sunday.
When Caroline Ducharme came out onto the XL Center floor wearing a white UConn throwback T-shirt about an hour before the opening tip, Huskiesâ fans were seeing red.
It seems every time UConn takes another step towards being whole, it takes a step back. After taking a hit to the head at Creighton Wednesday, the freshman was not feeling well either Saturday or Sunday and was kept out of the Huskiesâ showdown with No. 7 Tennessee.
One more time theyâd have to pull together. One more time it would me next person up. They have had to do it for more than two months now but never looked as good doing it as they did Sunday.
Freshman Azzi Fuddâs 25 points in her first career start paced No. 10 UConn to an inspiring and convincing 75-56 win over the Lady Vols before a crowd of 13,719.
âWhen anything is thrown at us, because of everything weâve already been through, weâre used to adjusting so itâs kind of second nature to us now,â UConn guard Evina Westbrook said. âWhatever it is, someone going down or COVID or whatever the case is, weâre ready for it.â
Fudd fit seamlessly into the starting lineup in Ducharmeâs place and her 3-pointer opened the scoring. Sheâd finish 7-for-9 from distance while adding four rebounds and four assists to no turnovers in 38 minutes.
She wasnât alone in stepping up. Aaliyah Edwards turned back to the clock to her freshman campaign and had the best effort of her sophomore season with 14 points, seven rebounds, and two blocked shots. Westbrook, the former Lady Vol, put together her second straight solid effort as her 11 first-half points helped UConn take a lead at intermission. She finished with 14 points, four rebounds, and three assists while playing at a pace we havenât seen for weeks.
On the bench, Ducharme and reigning national Player of the Year Paige Bueckers led the cheers.
âI think theyâve tried to stay pretty positive throughout all this,â UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. âItâs obviously been very challenging and theyâve had to roll with it in a lot of different ways. There was a time when it was, âAre we ever going to see the other side of this?â But with each person that came back, the feeling got better and better.
âToday was probably the best, where everyone âŠ Itâs a shame we did it without Caroline. If we can get accomplished what we did today knowing that Caroline and Paige werenât there to play, I think thatâs a lot of confidence going forward.â
Nika MĂŒhl was also solid and the Huskies (15-4) won with ease even though seniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa along with graduate student Dorka JuhĂĄsz, back after missing two games with a right foot issue, werenât on top of their games.
UConn led by as many as 26 as Tennessee (19-4) lost for the third time in four games.
In the past, the Huskies have had a player - Renee Montgomery for example in 2008 when UConn was down three starters for much of the season but was able to end a four-year Final Four drought - who helped keep the team together. Itâs different with the current group.
âI think itâs a collective thing,â Auriemma said. âI donât think itâs any one person. Thatâs why when you see us start to go the other way thereâs no one there to grab it and keep it from getting away. If itâs going to go, itâs going to go way longer than it should if you had someone that could keep it together.
âRight now, because itâs collective, they feed off of each other. So when itâs good like it was in that third quarter today, weâre really good. We score from everywhere and do everything. When it goes the other way, they jump on the wagon and it all goes the other way.
âHaving Azzi, someone that can stop the train and go, âBang! Bang! Bang!â thatâs just invaluable.â
Only Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook, and Edwards have played in all 19 of the Huskiesâ games. Bueckers, Fudd, Williams, JuhĂĄsz, MĂŒhl, Ducharme and Aubrey Griffin have combined to miss 52 games due to injury and/or illness.
UConn didnât play itâs A-game Sunday, but the Huskies are on a season-high six-game winning streak as the calendar has turned to February.
With three games against the Big Eastâs best on deck in a five-day stretch starting Wednesday, the timing is good.
Imagine what it may look like if it all comes together for them by March.
âItâs going to be really scary, and definitely scary for our opponents,â Fudd said. âWeâre going to be a nasty team once everyone is healthy.â