Eight point six seconds left in regulation. Azzi Fudd inbounds the pass to Nika Muhl who hands it off to Caroline Ducharme. Ducharme works her way around the perimeter before entering the paint. She takes the shot off her back foot. Swish. The bench erupts in jubilation.
That one play summarized the UConn women’s basketball team’s contest Wednesday. The No. 10 Huskies were initially scheduled to play No. 1 South Carolina yesterday in a heavily-hyped rematch. When South Carolina had to make up a conference game, the Huskies scheduled a showdown with the DePaul Blue Demons instead and both teams put on a show.
After missing the last three games due to COVID-19, Christyn Williams returned, but the Huskies were tested early via buckets by Sonia Morris and Aneesah Morrow. UConn would handle the pressure well, going on two separate 7-0 runs and taking a 20-11 lead after 10 minutes. Muhl led the way with seven points, including the final five points of the first quarter.
If the return of Williams was not enough, six minutes into the contest, Fudd made her return after missing the last 11 games with a foot injury.
“I decided after the shootaround that I was going to play and I’m really glad I did,” Fudd told the press.
Fudd made an impact in the second quarter when she buried a three-pointer for her first points. Thanks to her, Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the Huskies maintained a sizeable lead. But then DePaul went on a 17-0 run, limiting UConn to just four shots and prompting several turnovers. “We took a step back,” Head Coach Geno Auriemma stated.
Ducharme would end the cold spell with a layup in the paint, but DePaul ended the first half on a remarkable 21-2 run and entered the break up by nine. “I was really disappointed at halftime and I was really mad at what DePaul was doing,” Auriemma said bluntly.
Whatever adjustments he made to the game plan during the break paid off. The Huskies made all the right plays, such as giving Dorka Juhasz open looks, which allowed them to cut into the Blue Demon lead. The Huskies got close, cutting the lead down to two, but never took the lead as DePaul consistently answered. After over five minutes of playing behind, things changed.
With 3:24 left in the third quarter, Muhl found Fudd in the corner and her three-point shot tied the game. Not even a minute later, Fudd proved she was officially back when she hit a floater in the paint to give the Huskies the lead.
“When you add someone like that back to the lineup, that makes a lot of people feel a lot more confident, especially me,” Auriemma pointed out with regard to Fudd’s return.
Juhasz added a layup of her own to cap off a dominant third quarter as the Huskies outscored DePaul 23-13. Despite the great stretch and critical improvements, the Huskies only led by a single point.
In past games, the Huskies had been stifled offensively, putting up single digits in the final frame on two occasions. That was not the case here, as they used an 8-0 run behind Fudd and Evina Westbrook and took a strong lead.
DePaul did not go away as they responded with a 12-2 run to take the lead right back. DePaul would go up by four with three minutes to go after some intense back-and-forth basketball, but this game was far from over.
Williams shot two critical buckets to put the Huskies ahead by three with 1:14 to go, and all they needed to do was finish the job defensively. They did just that by limiting the Blue Demons to free throws the rest of the way, but how they got there was not easy.
Nelson-Ododa picked up her fourth foul with 44 seconds left, and DePaul went 1-2 from the line. After taking a timeout, UConn needed to make one more shot to seal the game, but Muhl was called for a travel with 24 seconds to go. Morrow missed a shot at the bucket 16 seconds later, but Juhasz had fouled her, forcing two more free throws.
Morrow made both free throws and UConn to take another timeout. A lot was at stake in these moments. The Huskies had won over 160 consecutive conference games both in the American Athletic Conference and the Big East. They had already lost to two unranked teams on the road this season. They had one shot to prevent overtime.
Auriemma knew exactly who should get the basketball.
“I wanted the ball in her [Ducharme’s] hands.”
Ducharme did just that, giving the Huskies the lead with 1.5 seconds remaining.
“I knew she was going to do something great with the ball. That’s just Caroline for you. She’s amazing,” Fudd told SNY following the game.
DePaul had a shot to upset at the buzzer, but Morrow’s prayer hit the glass and the Huskies survived 80-78, maintaining their perfect Big East record. “We did a lot of dumb things, but we did enough good things to win the game,” Auriemma told the media after the game.
Morrow was unstoppable, scoring 30 points on 11-19 shooting with 14 rebounds. She’s only the fourth player to do that against UConn in 20 years.
As for the Huskies, the freshmen came out to play. Ducharme led the way with 19 points on 8-12 shooting. Fudd emphatically scored 15 and shot 3-6 from downtown.
Following her bout with COVID-19, Williams scored 17 points while Juhasz secured 12 rebounds.
As the late Gianna Bryant once wrote to the team, “When you think you can’t, UConn.”
The Huskies (12-4, 7-0 Big East) travel to Providence to take on the Friars this Sunday, January 30, at 11:00 a.m. (time subject to change) on SNY and the UConn Sports Network with live stats provided by StatBroadcast.