The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

UConn enters stretch focused on healing

- By Maggie Vanoni

There’s a week left in the regular season and UConn women’s basketball is still battling injuries.

Sophomore guard Caroline Ducharme returned last week after missing 13 games recovering from a concussion. While she’s played 20-plus minutes in UConn’s past two games, she’s still experienci­ng lingering symptoms from her concussion.

Graduate forward Dorka Juhász sprained her ankle in a game last week and then again last Friday in practice. On Saturday, she played 35 minutes and recorded her 10th double-double of the season.

And the Huskies are still missing star sophomore Azzi Fudd due to an undisclose­d right knee injury. Fudd initially injured her knee on Dec. 4. She returned for one-and-a-half games before reinjuring her knee. She’s missed the past 11 games recovering, and as of last week, coach Geno Auriemma still did not have a return timeline for Fudd.

UConn has three games in six days starting Tuesday when the Huskies host St. John’s (7 p.m. / XL Center / SNY). The team’s main priorities in the final week of the regular season are to win at least two games (a win on Tuesday will secure the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament) and to, most importantl­y, get healthy.

“Obviously, we’re Connecticu­t. So, the expectatio­ns are such that we have to win every game and we have to win the Big East championsh­ip every single year. And we got to win the tournament every year and we gotta go to the Final Four every year. I don’t think there’s any other program in America that has those expectatio­ns placed on them,” Auriemma said Saturday.

“When you get in a situation, like we’re in this year, it has a little different significan­ce, I think. Like what’s more important: you go all out to try to win the next three games and then we go all out trying to win three games in the Big East Tournament and then we limp into the NCAA tournament because we’re not 100% or even 80% healthy? So,

this is one of those years where right now, play every game as hard as we can. But the main focus is trying to keep everybody as healthy as they can.”

The Huskies completed their season-sweep over Villanova Saturday in Pennsylvan­ia. While the Wildcats got as close as two in the final quarter, UConn pushed through to secure a two-win lead over Villanova in the conference standings.

Ducharme came off the bench, just like she did in her return last Wednesday, and looked confident driving to the basket. She finished with six points and six rebounds on 2 of 6 shooting. However, she took another hit to the head late in the game and had to sit for a minute before checking back in.

While she has cleared concussion protocol testing to resume playing, she’s still not 100 percent healthy. Auriemma said they’ve readjusted Ducharme’s practice plan to better accommodat­e her lingering symptoms, but the amount she plays is still based on how she feels that day.

“She’s just been suffering from some tightness and some people just have it (in their) shoulders and neck and her muscles are so tight that she gets those stress migraine headaches,” Auriemma said. “And when she’s good to go, you know those are mild and free and she can play through them. When they’re a little bit more involved, she takes herself out. … So, we just go day by day. But every day she’s been feeling better and better and better.”

Juhász said she wasn’t able to finish last Friday’s practice because of her sprained ankle. She said it was still bothering her during Saturday’s game (in which she recorded 14 points and 10 rebounds), but she wanted to be there for her team.

“Obviously, I didn’t know how much I can help, how much minutes I can do, coach didn’t know that, but you know, I just felt like that adrenaline once it kicked in, kind of just pushing through it even if it was painful,” she said. “There was some moments when I landed like kind of funky and then (it) kind of hurt really bad, but they did a great job of subbing me out just giving me a little bit of time, but not too much to get cold. But I am just happy that I was able to contribute enough to win this game.”

Having three days off between Tuesday’s game against St. John’s and UConn’s game at DePaul on Saturday will allow Juhász to spend some time off her ankle and allow it to fully heal in time for March.

On the positive side, Aaliyah Edwards has appeared to shake off her recent slump. Similar to Lou Lopez Sénéchal, Edwards fell into a bit of a rut during UConn’s stretch of tough games the last few weeks. At Providence on Feb. 1, she shot a seasonlow 28.6 percent from the floor, tying her season-low with just four points and grabbing down a seasonlow four rebounds.

She led UConn with 25 points in 29 minutes against top-ranked South Carolina. But was then held to eight points at Marquette and shot 30.8% (her second-worst shooting percentage of the season) against Creighton a week later.

On Saturday at Villanova, she bounced back and recorded a double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds. Edwards and Lopez Sénéchal are the only two players to have started all 28 games this season. Edwards is third on the team averaging 33.3 minutes per game.

“I think what you end up seeing is they can’t sustain it for the whole 40 minutes,” Auriemma said. “So you’re going to see spurts where it’s great and hopefully those spurts are the last five minutes of the game … But to expect it for 40 minutes is probably not possible going through the season like this. And she stayed with it the whole time and her confidence has never wavered.”

Yet through it all, UConn has continued to grind out win after win. These past two weeks of close games, and losses, have shown the Huskies just how tough their grit is when their backs are against the wall.

“I learned that as a team, you know, we’re tough when it comes down to the wire. You know that somebody’s gonna make a good play to get us to win,” Edwards said. “… It just shows how well we’ve come and how much we’ve grown as a team during the season.”

 ?? Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press ?? UConn's Dorka Juhasz (14) fights for position under the basket during Saturday's win at Villanova.
Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press UConn's Dorka Juhasz (14) fights for position under the basket during Saturday's win at Villanova.

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