Women’s Basketball: Freshmen come up big for injury-depleted Huskies in win over St John’s

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Feb 3, 2021; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) drives the ball against St. John’s Red Storm guard Kadaja Bailey (30) in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Photo by David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports.

With Anna Makurat, Christyn Williams and Aubrey Griffin all out due to injury, the Huskies played the majority of the game with only six players, four of which are new to the team. But led by career days from the freshmen, UConn (12-1, 10-0 Big East) was able to walk away from their matchup against St. John’s with a comfortable 94-62 victory. 

With three starters sidelined in Makurat, Williams and Griffin, head coach Geno Auriemma was forced to start three freshmen — the first time he had done so since 1998 — alongside juniors Evina Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Those three freshmen were Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl, and all three had career nights en route to the team’s 12th win of the season. But beyond the result, this game was fun to be a part of for this young Huskies team, as all three freshmen spoke on the joy they got playing alongside their classmates. 

“Obviously we’re really close off the court, but we’re getting that chemistry on the court as well,” Bueckers said. “It’s really fun to play with them, they bring so much energy and so much competitiveness and I really like playing with them a lot.” 

The first half belonged to the one-two punch of Bueckers and Edwards. In her second career start and first in nearly a month, Edwards made her presence felt on both ends of the floor, scoring eight points and grabbing four boards early on. Meanwhile Bueckers continued her strong stretch of play, putting up 18 points and four assists in the first half alone. 

By game’s end Bueckers would set a new-best 32 points to lead the way for the Huskies, followed closely by a career-high 22 points from Edwards.  

Auriemma said it was key for the freshmen to contribute when they are without some of their key players, highlighting the play of Edwards and Muhl in particular. 

Feb 3, 2021; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; UConn Huskies guard Nika Muhl (10) returns the ball against St. John’s Red Storm guard Unique Drake (1) in the second half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. UConn defeated St. John’s 94-62. Photo by David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports.

“I’ve got tremendous confidence in both of them,” Auriemma said. “You know, Aaliyah how hard she works, you saw her work on the boards and what she does running the floor. She’s just a big physical presence for us. And Nika’s getting more and more comfortable every game that she plays. The more minutes she plays the better she looks. She’s shooting the ball with so much confidence, so it felt good to see them have that much success.” 

The third quarter was more of the same for UConn as Bueckers and Edwards combined for 17 points, but it was fellow freshman Mir McLean who may have made the biggest impact to start the second half. 

Halfway through the period Nelson-Ododa was called for her fourth foul of the game, forcing the freshman in for the final four minutes. In those four minutes, McLean scored three points, grabbed six boards — including five on the offensive end — and forced two turnovers.  

Earlier in the season, Auriemma spoke about how McLean tended to fall into a fog during game time, but it was clear that was not the case last night, as her eight boards represented a career-high while her seven points were her second-most of the season. 

The highlight of the game came in the last couple minutes as UConn ran the fast break. The ball was thrown up the court to Muhl who in one swift motion, jumped, caught the ball and redirected it to a wide-open Edwards who hit the easy layup. 

The final quarter saw seven freshmen see the court, five of which got on the scoreboard. Edwards scored eight more to set her new best point total, Bueckers hit a triple, McLean and Aubrey Chassion each scored a bucket and Muhl added another five points en route to her season-high 11 points to go with six assists and four steals.  

Jan 23, 2021; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; UConn Huskies forward Aaliyah Edwards (3) shoots against the Georgetown Hoyas in the second half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Uconn defeated Georgetown 72-41. Photo by David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports.

Muhl, in particular, has continued to show more confidence since receiving more minutes beginning in late January and took a season-high seven shots including four from 3-point territory. 

“I feel like it’s slowly coming [to] where I want it to be,” Muhl said. “I’m still not there yet and I have a long way to go but I feel like little by little I’m more confident and comfortable on the court.” 

Outside of UConn’s newcomers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa added 11 points and five rebounds while Westbrook scored eight points, dished out seven assists and added three steals. Any questions regarding whether the Huskies could stay dominant with such a young team have been put to rest as career-nights across the board should have Auriemma and fans excited for the future. 

UConn has a quick turnaround after this one, with their next game set for Friday against Marquette where they will hopefully have a more complete team. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. and can be watched on SNY. 

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