The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

A helping hand

How Ducharme’s return will benefit UConn

- By Maggie Vanoni

STORRS — Caroline Ducharme missed her first six shots of the game, but the UConn women’s basketball team was down eight early in the fourth quarter and needed the offensive boost.

So when Lou Lopez Sénéchal saw Ducharme open in the corner, she passed her the ball.

In one swift motion, Ducharme

collected the pass, jumped up and made the 3-point shot. Her first bucket in 46 days.

The Gampel Pavilion crowd roared in response. Ducharme was back. “It’s great. We were waiting for that, definitely,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “Seeing her on the court, it’s almost like she never left. … It’s just really good to have her back.”

After sitting out 13 games due to a concussion,


Saturday, 2:30 p.m. (FOX)

Ducharme made her return to the court Wednesday night. The sophomore scored all 10 of her points in the fourth quarter, including the gamewinnin­g free throws, to secure UConn’s 62-60 win over Creighton.

Her return comes at the perfect time for the No. 6

Huskies who have just four games remaining in the regular season before March’s Big East and NCAA Tournament­s.

“For her to come out and do that today, she’s just one tough kid.” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

Ducharme, the No. 5ranked recruit in the Class of 2021, was among UConn’s biggest highlights from last season.

The Milton, Mass. native surpassed all expectatio­ns and led the Huskies in scoring in Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd’s absence. She played fearlessly in every game, driving through traffic to make layups and using her 6foot-2 frame to maneuver her way in front of bigger post players to grab rebounds and make clutch blocks.

Auriemma trusted her

the most when the game was on the line. It was her last-second shot that saved UConn’s then-conference streak at DePaul on Jan. 26.

However, Ducharme’s breakout season was halted when she suffered a head injury and missed four games last February. While UConn never provided specifics on Ducharme’s injury at the time, she said Wednesday it was a concussion.

Ducharme spent the summer rehabbing from a hip labrum surgery and was cleared to play. But she started to suffer neck stiffness and sat out both the exhibition and season opener.

She made her sophomore debut on Nov. 14 against Texas but was still visibly not quite at the level she once was. It didn’t help that Ducharme took big hits to the head in December and had to spend the last minutes of games on the bench holding ice to her head.

On Jan. 2, Ducharme suffered a concussion in practice.

Due to the serious nature of concussion­s, athletes cannot return from concussion protocol until they pass consecutiv­e days without symptoms. That process can last any number of days. For Nika Mühl and Ayanna Patterson, who each suffered concussion­s earlier this year, that recovery was about a week long.

Ducharme’s was over 40 days. Some days she’d feel OK and would try to do light workouts. But then the next day, she’d feel off and the cycle would continue.

“It’s been really hard,” Ducharme said. “I’ve done a lot of rehab for different injuries but with a concussion, it’s like day-to-day. There’s some days you feel good, feel like you can do stuff and then the symptoms kind of hit you later and you’re like, ‘I did too much’ or you kinda have to like go back a little bit. It’s been a lot. It’s been really up and down.”

Sometimes she had to leave the sideline midgame to find a quiet room to relax and get out of the noise and bright lights. For most games, she wore earplugs to lessen the noise pressure.

For over a month, she watched from the sideline as her teammates continued the season without her. The Huskies were shorthande­d and played six of their nine games in January with just eight available players.

“Nobody wants to play more than Caroline,” Auriemma said. “There’s kids that want to play as much, but nobody wants to play more and it was killing her to have to sit out especially watching what was going on, what was taking place.”

On Feb. 3, she returned to practice but was designated as light contact and didn’t complete the whole practice.

Over the course of the next week, Ducharme began to add more to her workouts and successful­ly was able to complete multiple practices in a row. She joined the team during its pregame warmups out on the court and began to get assimilate­d back into the game-day routine.

On Monday, Feb. 13, she was cleared for full contact and completed her first full practice.

“She worked really, really hard to get back and you know, this week was really her first time practicing full with defense, a normal regular practice,” Auriemma said.

Ducharme was the first player on the court for warmups on Wednesday. She spent a few minutes shooting alone from different positions on the floor until her teammates joined her.

“It was a lot of different emotions,” Ducharme said. “And I mean, I was really excited to get back out there. But I mean, there’s always a little bit of thinking about how I haven’t played in a while, and I just wanted things to go well, physically and mentally.”

The Gampel Pavilion crowd cheered when she checked into the game for the first time at 1:40 in the first quarter. Ducharme played seven minutes in the first half. She had one rebound and went 0 for 3 from the floor and missed two 3-point attempts.

“I think just being out on the floor was a big step for me and just being able to handle everything that goes with being in the game, the lights, the noise all that and then still be able to play basketball,” she said. “I think going through the game, I think we all knew that, like, we needed to all step up and hit shots. I think that’s all that was really on my mind was that we needed some offense.”

Ducharme never stopped playing hard all night. She took contact and bounced back. She sprinted effortless­ly and played with pressure on defense. Despite her shots not falling, she looked like her freshman self.

“When I met with the doctors yesterday, we talked about what’s the best-case scenario for her today,” Auriemma said. “And we all said pretty much for her to get banged around a little bit, smacked around a little bit and come out of there feeling like, ‘Alright, I can do this.’ ”

In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, Auriemma wanted the ball in Ducharme’s hands.

With less than five seconds left he subbed Ducharme back in. She was immediatel­y fouled driving into the lane. The sophomore didn’t let the moment become too big. She stood on the foul line confident and focused on how her team needed the points.

“When the pressure is on, and when it’s most important she finds a way to make a play,” Auriemma said. “… She knows exactly what she’s doing, where she’s going, how to get in there and how to get fouled.”

Ducharme went 3 of 3 in seven minutes in the fourth quarter and made all three of her free throws for 10 points (the most from any player in the fourth).

Ducharme was UConn’s only sub the whole game. Creighton had 13 bench points from four subs. Ducharme

scored all 10 of the Huskies’ bench points.

“She’s a hard worker,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “So, once she’s on the court, she’s going to do as much as possible and we saw it today in the game. You know, she wasn’t scared to drive to the lane and be aggressive and go to the basket. So that’s something that we really need from her.”

Ducharme says while she’s been cleared to play, she’s still dealing with some symptoms leftover from the concussion.

“I think just, you know, honestly, since the one last year I’ve been dealing with a lot of like residual, like migraine symptoms, neck issues just from it,” she said. “So, I think being cleared from the concussion was a great step, but I think I’m still dealing with symptoms from it. So again, with the ice and the earplugs, it’s all just kind of managing it.”

Her return gives UConn nine available players for the first time in eight weeks. The depth will be crucial in their last four games of the regular season, especially when they face No. 15 Villanova on Saturday.

On Wednesday, four of UConn’s starters all got rest in the first half because of Ducharme’s presence off the bench. The rest, even if short, allowed the starters to avoid getting hit with fatigue and allowed Auriemma to try out new lineups.

Ducharme’s ability to hit 3-point shots also opens up UConn’s offense and lessens the pressure on Lopez Sénéchal to carry the team’s outside presence.

“We can mix and match and play with four guards sometimes if we have to. We didn’t have that capability for a while,” Auriemma said. “… The flexibilit­y she gives us, the ability to make shots, rest people. She gets to the free-throw line, she can get in the lane, just a whole lot of different things that we benefit from having Caroline in the game.”

 ?? Michael Caterina/Assocaited Press ?? UConn’s Caroline Ducharme returned to the lineup during Wednesday night’s win over Creighton.
Michael Caterina/Assocaited Press UConn’s Caroline Ducharme returned to the lineup during Wednesday night’s win over Creighton.

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