Loaded UConn women push for program’s 12th national title

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Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma, left, assistant coach Morgan Valley, center, and associate head coach Chris Dailey, right, watch First Night events for the UConn men’s and women’s NCAA college basketball teams Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — UConn fans are getting a little antsy. After all, the Huskies haven’t won a women’s national championship since 2016.

Connecticut comes into this season ranked No. 2, having added the nation’s top recruit, guard Azzi Fudd, to a team that returns last year’s collegiate national player of the year Paige Bueckers, along with every other starter that went to the program’s 13th straight Final Four.

But coach Geno Auriemma says he’s bemused by the idea anything short of a 12th NCAA title for his program will be a disappointment.

“I kind of get a kick out of that, because most people if they had won one in 1916, people would be happy to win a second one,” he said. “But, it is what it is. We created it. We did it. We own it and we embrace it.”

The Huskies have 14 players on their roster and at least 11 are expected to see playing time this season.

Along with Bueckers, UConn is led by three seniors — Christyn Williams, a former high school player of the year; Evina Westbrook, a transfer from Tennessee who chose to play another year rather than enter the WNBA draft; and center Oliva Nelson-Ododa.

“We have depth,” Williams said. ”I feel like that’s something that we were missing in the Final Four. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. And it’s extremely competitive this year.”

Here some keys to UConn’s season:

TURNING TO PAIGE

Bueckers is back at practice after having surgery in April on her right ankle.

She was a unanimous choicefor the AP preseason All-America team a nd Auriemma said she looks improved from last season, when she led the team in points (20 per game), assists (5.8 per game), steals (66) and 3-point field goal percentage (46.4%) and was selected the AP national player of the year.

“Paige is Paige,” Auriemma said. “Paige is better than she was last year. Paige is a little more comfortable than she was last year. She’s not as hesitant to take shots as she was last year.”

FRONT-COURT DEPTH

Nelson-Ododa, last year’s co-defensive player of the year in the Big East, and sophomore Aaliyah Edwards, who spent part her offseason playing for the Canadian Olympic team, handled duties in the post last season. They will be joined by 6-foot-5 Dorka Juhasz, a transfer from Ohio State, where she averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds last season.

“She’s super-talented,” Nelson-Ododa said. “She brings a very versatile skillset, so being able to compete with her and go head-to-head like that (in practice) I think has made both of us better.”

FRESHMEN

Fudd, the preseason Big East freshman of the year, leads another top recruiting class that includes 6-5 forward Amari DeBerry; 6-2 wing Saylor Poffenbarger; and 6-2 guard Caroline Ducharme.

Ducharme is expected to compete for playing time right away after impressing both coaches and teammates this summer.

“It’s going to be interesting to see where she fits in because I can see her having a really prominent role on our team,” Auriemma said. “What that means? I don’t know, but she’s sneaky good.”

Poffenbarger, who joined the team in January after graduating early from high school, is returning from a back injury that kept her from participating in summer workouts. DeBerry is expected to begin the season on the bench behind the team’s three other post players.

SUPPORTING CAST

Westbrook, sophomore guard Nika Muhl, sophomore forward Mir McLean and junior forward Aubrey Griffin may all see their minutes diminish to varying degrees if the newcomers progress.

Westbrook said there has been some fierce battles at practice, with players competing for spots.

“We’re on each other’s throats,” she said. “The competitiveness and the edginess…it’s at a totally different level.”

But she also said after they “cuss each other out” at practice, they get together and talk about what’s for dinner and plans for the evening.

“We’re at each other’s throats because we know that’s what’s going to make us better,” she said. “But we’re family. We’re more than family.”

UConn opens the season on Nov. 14 in Hartford against Arkansas, the program that handed the Huskies their only regular-season loss a year ago.

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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