Barring any unforeseen issues, the No. 11 UConn women’s basketball team will return to the court Sunday against Creighton for its first game in 21 days when the Huskies host the Blue Jays at Gampel Pavilion.
The Huskies experienced an extended layoff after their first four games back from the holiday break were canceled due to COVID-19 issues. Three of the cancellations were because injuries and COVID-19 cases on UConn’s side prevented the team from fielding seven players, the minimum required by the Big East to hold games.
UConn will finally get above that threshold this weekend, but not easily. The Huskies will have seven players available, according to coach Geno Auriemma, including sophomore Nika Mühl, who missed the previous three games due to a lingering foot issue. She will be on a 15-minute time restriction, so maybe it’s closer to six-and-a-half available.
“We’ll do the best we can,” Auriemma said Friday.
Auriemma said that four players contracted COVID-19 over the last few weeks and that symptoms for all were “almost nil.” The team is 100% vaccinated.
Though freshman Amari DeBerry plans to dress this weekend, Auriemma said she is not ready to go and “it might take her a little bit of time” to make her return. He said she was dealing with some “other issues” prior to getting COVID-19, so she is still making her way back. Sophomore Piath Gabriel will not dress for the game, the school clarified after Auriemma’s remarks.
Sophomore Azzi Fudd and junior Aubrey Griffin are still on the injured reserve. Auriemma said Friday he hopes Fudd (foot) will be able to start running next week, while Griffin is dealing with a disk injury in her back.
Griffin, a key bench piece her previous two years on the team, has yet to make her season debut. Auriemma said she might not be able to return at all for the 2021-22 campaign.
“There’s a good possibility that she’s going to need surgery on that,” Auriemma said, “and I don’t envision her being back the rest of the season.”
Auriemma and redshirt senior Evina Westbrook admitted the team is still in the process of developing an identity in light of Paige Bueckers’ absence primarily, but also so many other rotation changes. In the three games the Huskies played without Bueckers, Auriemma saw “a lot” of improvement in the latter six quarters of play, including in the team’s 69-64 loss to current No. 3 Louisville on Dec. 19.
But throw in an extended break from game play thanks to COVID-19, and Auriemma doesn’t know what to expect from the team when it takes the court Sunday.
Up until this week, the team typically had just five or six players able to practice, the coach said. Practice players weren’t around since school wasn’t in session. The Huskies tried to work on fundamentals and play as much 3-vs-3 or 4-vs-4 as possible, but nothing truly mimics game play aside from actual games.
“It’s a really challenging situation,” Auriemma said. “And then to not be able to play for 20 days or whatever it is, you’re going into Sunday’s game almost like it’s the beginning of the season, almost like it’s the first game of the year.”
“It has been a test with everything going on,” Westbrook added, “but I think we’ve all handled it pretty well.”
Westbrook has also seen some improvement in the team’s communication and movement on offense over the past few weeks, something the team realizes the coaches have been correct in harping on. The challenge now, according to Westbrook, is to “listen and lock in.”
“I think a lot of times we can get stagnant and people are just confused on where to go or the next move,” Westbrook said. “So moving and communication have been a huge emphasis since we’ve been back from Christmas.”
The challenges are more than just physical, though. With so much uncertainty, upheaval and risk-assessment needed on a daily basis due to COVID-19, Auriemma seems worn down.
“All the things that made coaching what it was, to me personally, it’s no longer that,” Auriemma said.
“I don’t know that there’s any joy in that. I don’t know that there’s any fun in that,” he added. “You’re not doing the same job you used to do based on these past two years. I think every coach has had to figure out a way to to deal with it and some deal with it better than others. Some players deal with it better than others, but I don’t think anyone’s been unaffected and feels like ‘I’m in good shape, I’ve made it through this okay.’ Everyone’s been affected, and it’s all negative. I don’t know there’s one positive aspect that’s come out of these past two years for anybody.”
The Huskies also had a plethora of COVID-19 disruptions in the 2020-21 season, although they were still able to play 25 games prior to the NCAA Tournament. So far this year, UConn has played just nine games, which ranks in the 25th percentile for Division I women’s teams across the country.
“It’s very difficult to have that feeling of you’re building toward something,” Auriemma said. “I think a lot of teams probably don’t look as good as they probably could look, and I don’t think that it’s a lack of effort. I think it’s just a lack of the focus and the energy. I’m sure people see it at home, they see it at work. Teachers see it in school. There’s kind of a fog that a lot of us are operating under, and that more than anything, I think, has been the biggest struggle for me personally.”
Auriemma’s despondency didn’t seem to trickle down to his players. Westbrook, the de facto team mom, said players are trying to be there for each other and stay together, while also not letting the disruptions of the pandemic weigh on them too much.
“I feel like at this point, I think all of us are at a point where, at least I am, just kind of it is what it is,” Westbrook said. “There’s not much that we can do and a lot of the things that have happened are out of our control. So for me especially, I’m not going to get frustrated with things that I can’t control and I’m just trying to reiterate that to everyone else.”
For now, the Huskies want to take things one week, one game, at a time.
“Right now we’re hoping that these last couple days we’ve had of trying to get better, and as we start playing some games, and the games start coming in a rhythm fashion, that we’ll be able to kind of develop an identity for this new team that we have now until we get everybody back,” Auriemma said.
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org