The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Collision course

UConn’s Griffin looks to continue streak against ’Nova’s Siegrist

- By Maggie Vanoni STAFF WRITER

A trip to the New York state regional final was on the line and the crowd was cheering loud in the background.

Everyone’s eyes were on Aubrey Griffin and Maddy Siegrist.

Griffin, filling in at point guard for Ossining High School, dribbled the ball upcourt while Siegrist, Our Lady of Lourdes’ senior star, had her eyes fixed on the ball and seemed ready to pounce on defense. Instead of hanging out under the basket, like she had all game, Siegrist came all the way up to the top of the arc to defend Griffin.

After a few dribbles, Griffin made her move. She sprinted around the left side of the key with Siegrist glued to her back. She stopped suddenly, pivoted off her right foot and spun toward the basket. Siegrist was a second too late and missed the block, fouling Griffin.

Griffin completed the threepoint play.

The game concluded with the crowd cheering “MVP” chants for Griffin. She was named MVP of the 2018 Section 1 Class AA Final with 46 points and nine rebounds. Ossining defeated Lourdes 75-63.

“It was always physical playing with her,” Griffin said Tuesday recalling playing against the now-Villanova star senior Siegrist in high school. “You know, she’s a really good, great player. They however didn’t win but she’s very talented. “

Fast forward five years and Griffin has yet to lose to Siegrist when she’s on the court — even now at the collegiate level.

That streak is on the line Saturday when the No. 6-ranked UConn women’s basketball team travels to Pennsylvan­ia to face No. 14 Villanova.

Griffin is a year removed from undergoing season-ending back surgery. Yet, the red

shirt junior feels more confident than ever. While Griffin hasn’t officially made a decision on her future in Storrs, she’s playing the best basketball of her career and seems almost certain to be back next season.

“I feel like that just came with like having faith in my ability and then also putting the time in the gym,” Griffin said. “I lacked confidence previous years but, like, this is the most confident I’ve ever felt being here.”

Earlier this week, Dan Ricci, who coached Griffin at Ossining High, was going through old film of Griffin and Siegrist and sat down to rewatch that 2018 section semifinal game.

While he never coached Siegrist, Ricci remembers always being impressed watching her on the court.

“Her length was always an issue,” he said. “Her tenacity, she just played hard every second she was on the court always. She developed that outside shot more in college, she was more of an inside kid in high school. But her rebounding was always amazing.”

Griffin became a star at Ossining as a freshman. Ricci says back then they didn’t draw up plays for Griffin since they already had a dominant senior. However, somehow, someway Griffin would still manage to score.

“Back when she was a freshman, we didn’t even run plays for her because we had a kid, who was an All-American at Seton Hall (Shadeen Samuels), as a senior, and everything was run for her,” Ricci said. “So, Aubrey would just get all the garbage stuff. She turned garbage into 50 points. It was incredible.”

Ossining and Lourdes faced each other three times during Griffin’s time in high school. Ossining won twice during Griffin’s freshman year (Siegrist’s sophomore year) and again in 2018 when she was a junior and Siegrist a senior.

The teams did faceoff during Griffin’s sophomore year, but she missed that season after tearing her ACL. Ricci says Ossining won that game thanks to 55 points from former Husky Andra Espinoza-Hunter. “They had trouble beating us for a long time,” he said.

Griffin didn’t miss a beat returning for her junior year. She put in the rehab and started the season on time.

With a trip to the state regional final on the line in 2018, Ricci assigned Griffin to not only defend Siegrist, but also play point guard since their normal starter was injured.

“She’s so capable of handling the ball and doing things like that,” Ricci said. “And she’s also an outstandin­g passer. She’s very unselfish. We did a lot of high pick-and-roll stuff, and she would always find the right person. We had a couple of good shooters in the corners, but she’ll definitely make the right pass at the right time. She doesn’t force shots.”

And Griffin did what she does best. She drove into the lane, full of traffic, and scored. She created plays for her teammates and read the defense two steps ahead to always find the perfect shot.

“I remember at that game, I think Shea (Ralph) was there,” Ricci said. “And I said to her afterwards, ‘It looked like she never even had a torn ACL. And she (Ralph) was like, ‘Nope, definitely didn’t.’ ”

UConn didn’t play Villanova Griffin’s freshman year in Storrs in 2019-20 since the Huskies were still in the American Athletic Conference. But the Huskies went 2-0 over the Wildcats the following year when they rejoined the Big East.

Griffin sat out last season, her true junior year, after undergoing seasonendi­ng back surgery in January.

On Feb. 9, 2022, the Wildcats upset UConn in Hartford for one of the program’s most historic losses. Villanova’s 72-69 win snapped UConn’s 169game win streak over conference opponents. Siegrist scored 17 points with 12 rebounds in 40 minutes.

UConn avenged that loss a little under a month later with a 70-40 win over the Wildcats in the Big East Tournament Championsh­ip.

Siegrist was named the conference’s Player of the Year and finished second in the nation with 25.3 points per game average.

Griffin spent last summer rehabbing her back and getting back in shape. She scored 13 points with five rebounds and two steals in UConn’s season debut on Nov. 10.

Ten days later, Griffin joined the Husky’s starting lineup when Dorka Juhász broke her thumb. And despite missing two games in December due to COVID-19, Griffin has started every game since.

The 6-foot-1 forward is averaging career-highs in minutes played (32.6), field goal percentage (56.9%), 3-point field goal percentage (31.9%), freethrow percentage (80.6%), rebounds per game (6.9), assists per game (1.2) and points per game (13.7).

“We couldn’t win games without her,” Juhász said. “She’s just been so, I don’t know, like, impactful offensivel­y, defensivel­y, and her leadership is just coming through … I’m super happy for her obviously just seeing her struggle last year and she wasn’t able to travel with us and now like she’s back with us and, you know, helping us to win. It’s just been amazing. And I think we’re all super proud of her. She’s just gonna get keep getting better and better.”

Griffin is the Huskies second best shooter (only Aaliyah Edwards is shooting better with a 59.0 clip) and has the secondmost offensive rebounds (she has 60 compared to Edwards’ 69). Griffin is also second with 36 steals (Nika Mühl leads with 37).

Ricci was in the stands at the XL Center on Jan. 29 to watch Siegrist and Griffin when the Huskies hosted the Wildcats last month. UConn won 63-58 thanks to 19 points and six rebounds from Griffin, who improved to 6-0 alltime over Siegrist (25 points and eight rebounds).

“It’s fun,” Ricci said of watching the two now duke it out on the college level. “There were times in that game where they were the two best players on the court. I was getting texts from all the old coaches back home watching them on TV.”

Siegrist is expected to be a first-round draft pick in April’s WNBA Draft this spring. She’s already rewritten both Villanova’s and the Big East record books. On Feb. 11, she scored 50 points against Seton Hall to set both the school and conference’s single-game scoring record and become the alltime Big East leading scorer in regular season conference games.

“It’s incredible,” Ricci said. “I’m very happy for her. (She’s a) really, really good kid, very humble kid. And, you know, she’s improved tremendous­ly from high school to college. She’s surrounded by a great program that gives her the opportunit­y to do what she does, but also, she’s just taking her game to another level.”

Griffin, meanwhile, has two years of eligibilit­y remaining after this season if she chooses thanks to the pandemic and redshirtin­g last season.

After struggling with confidence all throughout high school and during her first two years at UConn, Griffin is just now unlocking a new level of her game.

Ricci notices his former star’s shift on the court.

“I think she’s much more confident this year,” he said. “I mean, due to the injuries, she was forced into a bigger role. And I think she’s flourished in it.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma also sees Griffin’s growth.

“You still have to encourage her to do more, do more, do more because she doesn’t want to do poorly,” he said. “So if she’s going great, she’ll just keep going and going and going. If it’s not going great, she’ll kind of pull back a little bit. You know, so you got to constantly push her to do more, do more, do more and that’s kind of given her confidence that we think she can do more. …

“She just does things that you can’t explain in a good way and in a crazy way. Some rebounds she gets you just go, ‘Wow.’ So we’re just pushing her, keep going, keep going, keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing. And the cool thing about Aubrey this year is she’s not getting completely deflated, devastated over a bad game or a couple bad possession­s in a row. You know she’s better able to bounce back.”

Griffin told media on Tuesday, she will not participat­e in the team’s Senior Night celebratio­n on Feb. 27, however; she has yet to officially make a decision about her future. She’ll graduate with a degree in women’s studies this May.

“I’m really blessed to be here,” she said. “I’m just taking it day by day, and I don’t really think about the future too much. … I don’t think I need to rush something like that. I definitely just stay present and worry about the season.”

Both Auriemma and Ricci have a feeling Griffin will return to UConn in the fall.

“I know she plans on returning there again next year, and I think she’s gonna keep getting better,” Ricci said.

Added Auriemma: “Aubrey has said pretty much, ‘No Senior Night for me. I think I need to be back here another year.’ Missing that whole year of basketball, that’s a lot. It’s a lot plus, you know, she’s pretty comfortabl­e here too.”

 ?? M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images ?? UConn’s Aubrey Griffin (44) and Aaliyah Edwards flank Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist at the XL Center in Hartford.
M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images UConn’s Aubrey Griffin (44) and Aaliyah Edwards flank Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist at the XL Center in Hartford.

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