“We have to weather the storm.” Those words from head coach Geno Auriemma are going to define the next few weeks for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team as they continue their tough slate of games.
After playing the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Thursday night, the Huskies (5-1 at the time of publication, 1-0 Big East) make one final stop in New Jersey, where they will participate in the sixth annual Never Forget Tribute Classic. They will be one of the first two women’s teams to participate in the event as they go up against the University of California-Los Angeles Bruins.
The Huskies have won all six meetings thus far, and the last time these teams met, the Huskies survived with a 69-61 win in Albany. This seventh meeting will also be the first regular-season women’s basketball game ever aired on ABC.
As for the Huskies themselves, it’s all about the “next man up” mentality. Currently, the Huskies are down Aubrey Griffin (back), Nika Muhl (foot), Azzi Fudd (foot) and star Paige Bueckers (knee). The battle-tested Huskies will continue to show that they are always ready for their next opponent. Even without Bueckers, Evina Westbrook says that the “goal is a National Championship.”
At the guard position, losing Bueckers is massive, but the Huskies do have guards who can drive the lane and find the basket every time. The offense now pivots around Christyn Williams, who is the only other player averaging double figures with 15 points a game while playing an average of 35 minutes a game.
Auriemma originally ran a three-guard game with Evina Westbrook taking a lot of starting minutes. Westbrook (9.5 PPG and 30.3 RPG) will now step up into the No. 2 guard position and is expected to take a lot more contested shots as the season progresses. If she avoids major foul trouble, she could be a vital cog to the offense.
As for the third guard, Williams knows that “It’s going to be a team effort to fill that gap.” One player that might step up is Caroline Ducharme, who had an impressive fourth quarter against Notre Dame when she scored 14 points and made three 3-point shots. Her 3.6 PPG in five games won’t show for that quite yet, but if Ducharme can spread her scoring abilities across four quarters, then she could see starting minutes over the next month and a half while showing her potential on the court.
Auriemma could also run a three-forward court to limit the opposition from consistently finding the back of the net. Not every game is going to involve the team shooting 31% from the field like Notre Dame did last Sunday.
Already, Auriemma has Aaliyah Edwards (7.5 PPG and 3.2 RPG) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (8.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 2.2 BPG) running the floor. Nelson-Ododa had a strong showing against the Fighting Irish as she put up her first double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds and will look to improve off those numbers. Edwards will continue to provide the pressure from within the paint.
Getting Griffin back for this game would be huge, but if not, then the next person up is Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz. Juhasz is averaging 3 PPG and 4.7 RPG, but she has only been on the court for an average of 15.7 minutes. Like Ducharme, Juhasz has a great opportunity over these next few games to improve her talents and showcase the potential she displayed outside of UConn.
UCLA (5-2) meanwhile has already played a Big East team this season as they beat St. John’s 73-65 in the Gulf Coast Showcase back on Nov. 28. The Bruins are coming off a laugher against San Jose State, a game they won 112-33 while shutting out the Spartans in the second quarter and scoring 25+ points in each frame.
Natalie Chou had a monster game for the Bruins as she put up 31 points (a career high) on six three-pointers (also a career high). She was an offensive machine in her previous matchup as she also put up 11 assists for a double-double. Chou, who is averaging 13.4 points per game, will be someone to look out for because she is coming off a career best.
But that’s not the only scoring option for the Bruins. Charisma Osbourne gives the Bruins a nasty 1-2 punch as she has 18.5 points per game. The Huskies will need to answer against both scoring threats as they can both let it fly from deep (46.7% and 39.5% respectively).
The Bruins have a third option they can rely on at guard in Jaelynn Penn, who is averaging 13 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. She knows how to drive it to the net, but she also can win the rebound battle by herself, so the Huskies will need to make as many second-chance opportunities as they can.
If you thought that was enough, then wait until you run into Cincinnati transfer Iimari Thomas. She currently leads the team with 19.1 points per game. She knows how to crash the perimeter and do it well as she is shooting a dominant 60.8% from the field.
This will be a high-scoring match as the Huskies are averaging 74.5 points a game and the Bruins are averaging 77.1 points per game. This will also be a battle of the defense as both teams are averaging over 30 rebounds a game.
At the end of the day, the key thing to look out for is adjustments. Westbrook put it best, “We all have to get on that plane as one, and we have to get it done no matter who is on the floor.” If the Huskies can adjust their gameplan well and find consistent scoring options outside of Bueckers, then their next stretch of games will be something to watch.