Freshman Ducharme scores career-high 24 points in loss
UNCASVILLE — The UConn Huskies went only as far as Caroline Ducharme could take them Sunday.
Imagine giving such a scenario realistic consideration a few months or even a few weeks ago.
But that was the case in game nine of this trying 2020-21 season, the No. 7 Huskies’ 69-64 loss to No. 6 Louisville at Mohegan Sun Arena that saw Ducharme carry the team in ways freshmen are seldom required to.
So Ducharme’s magnificent performance, a careerhigh 24 points without a second’s rest, was both a source of inspiration and a spotlight on other frustrations as UConn heads into the holidays with three losses and an incomplete lineup that will remain that way well into 2022.
“We need more contributions from more people, and we didn’t get them,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’re not going to be a really good team without that. I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. I guess I’m supposed to have an answer, but I don’t.”
Ducharme made UConn’s only three 3-pointers. She set career highs in points, minutes, shots made and attempted (10-for-20) and rebounds (eight) and she tied a career high with two assists.
Her 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter pushed the UConn lead to 48-42, but the Huskies faltered down the stretch with virtually nowhere to look for an
the stretch with virtually nowhere to look for answers beyond a player who came in having played a total of 100 minutes of college basketball.
The starting senior backcourt of Christyn Williams (10 points) and Evina Westbrook (six) combined to shoot 7-for-23.
“Beats me,” Auriemma said of the situation. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Caroline is really good.”
Predicting the injuries to Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, Nika Muhl and Aubrey Griffin would have been impossible, but the response ideally would have been easy. UConn’s most experienced players, called on to carry the load over the past three games, have not affected the game consistently enough for UConn to look anything like its usual self.
Auriemma has had teams with a bevy of injuries before. He recalled Sunday, at one point over the years, being down to six players.
“But they were the right six,” he said, “and it didn’t affect us.”
He recalled another time, early 2000s, when Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Shea Ralph and Amy Duran were all injured for a game UConn managed to win at Rutgers.
This group isn’t getting over the hump like others have. Williams and Westbrook were both 1-for-4 in the fourth quarter. Ducharme was 5-for-8. Her 3-pointer with 14 seconds left pulled the Huskies within 65-62 and Louisville iced the game from the free throw line.
“I think we’re all just going to try to come back and see what we can do to keep getting better,” Ducharme said. “There’s definitely a lot of fight in this team. … I think they just hit the shots they needed to hit. We were battling all game.”
It is important to remember that UConn — without its best player in Bueckers, without its best two shooters (Bueckers, Fudd) and without a key playmaker and disrupter in Muhl, and without the athletic depth Griffin provides — still took a top-10 team down to the wire.
So Ducharme’s performance bodes well in that it can be viewed as something to build off of, something to integrate, when the Huskies are whole again in February. But it also shed light on some of the team’s limitations that have nothing to do with injury. Auriemma called the team its own worst enemy, noting that some problems existed before the injuries.
“Just not very typical of Connecticut teams and the way we play,” he said.
He added, “I don’t think anybody is having pity parties for Connecticut. I’m not like some other coaches I’ve seen over the years, who cry because their team is getting their ass kicked after they won so many games for all those games. We know what the reality is. We know what we’re dealing with. You show up and play as hard as you can for as long as you can. We should have won the game (Sunday). We did enough things to win. They made shots when they had to. We didn’t. That was the difference.”
Opponents certainly can play UConn differently for a while, and will continue to.
“Obviously Paige shoots the basketball well,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “Azzi does, also. Two kids who can shoot the 3 and spread things out and stretch the offense. Now they just don’t shoot it as well. So you’re able to pack in more. You’re able to help off and try to help on their post players. But Caroline played a great game today.”
UConn was 3-for-15 on 3-pointers and didn’t have one until Ducharme connected in the third quarter.
She was all over the place before and after that. The ball was in no player’s hands more often. She took the ball up court. She drove the baseline, the lane. She crashed the glass. She posted up. She created space off the dribble that other players couldn’t. In November she was a player fighting to help push UConn’s rotation to nine. On this late-December Sunday, she was a force.
“You say, what attracted you to her, why did you recruit her?” Auriemma said. “I don’t think it was her blazing quickness or her ability to get off her feet and play above the rim. There was a mental toughness part that I find very rare in today’s players. She has it. And she has a sneaky way of getting points.”
Ducharme has played through cold streaks and found a different level of comfort. She first showed a real flash of potential Dec. 5 against Notre Dame, scoring 14 points in a career-high 14 minutes. She played 29 minutes the next game and was flat — like every play — in a loss to Georgia Tech but got going in the right direction again in last week’s victory over UCLA, scoring 14 points in 32 minutes.
Against Louisville, she didn’t come off the court. Auriemma would have liked to give her a rest, nothing that she twice lost coverage of Hailey Van Lith, who made two key 3-pointers. But Ducharme was indispensable.
“It’s not so funny when they’re still like that as seniors, but freshmen are funny because it’s all really, really, really good or all a real struggle,” Auriemma said. “Watching Caroline practice, we knew there was something really good about her. Now the trick is when we do get healthy, building on that.”