NCAA tournament: Will UConn’s 14-season Final Four streak end?

It was Connecticut superstar and WNBA great Diana Taurasi who asked the question on everyone’s mind three years ago after the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Do you think Coach was happy the tournament didn’t happen?” she asked, a glint in her eye, about Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma while on an Instagram Live with former teammate Sue Bird.

UConn had taken late-season losses to top-ranked South Carolina and the Sabrina Ionescu-led Oregon Ducks. In the last selection committee reveal for that canceled tournament, the Huskies were ranked No. 6 overall and a No. 2 seed. The streak of more than a decade of consecutive Final Four berths appeared to be in jeopardy.

On the late-night Insta Live, Bird gave a deep shrug and the two laughed, noting that UConn was adding No. 1 recruit and heralded generational talent Paige Bueckers that summer. The expectations — and burdens — soared as high as talk of four titles in four years à la Breanna Stewart. It took off further when Azzi Fudd, Bueckers’ best friend and the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class, committed to UConn.

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It hasn’t quite gone to plan in Storrs, Connecticut, and this time there’s no avoiding Taurasi's underlying question. The Huskies’ streak of 14 Final Fours appears in more danger than any season prior. The major culprit is an unprecedented streak of injuries that has sidelined their two No. 1 recruits and most of the roster at some time. UConn (29-5) hasn’t missed an Elite Eight since 2006 and a Sweet 16 since 1993.

It wouldn’t be the first time this season a 30-year streak has snapped. Yet again, it wouldn’t be the first time even in the past 14 months we’ve seen a UConn star return late to lead the Huskies into April. And the bracket did the Huskies, a No. 2 seed in the Seattle 3 region, favors in their quest.

Injuries complicate UConn’s season

It’s a story of perseverance made for the big screen. UConn tipped off its 2022-23 season with Bueckers (ACL) and top-five freshman recruit Isuneh “Ice” Brady (dislocated right patella) out for the season with injuries sustained in a pickup game and practice, respectively. Those injury woes continued with nearly every player on the shorthanded 10-person roster missing games, including 22 by Fudd, and a forced postponement of a Big East contest because they didn’t have the numbers to play.

“I feel bad for them in some ways, like this much, because these are kids that I don’t think they were prepared to play this many minutes under this kind of pressure and have to perform every day,” Auriemma said at the conclusion of the regular season. “So when they were coming off the bench or whatever their role was, they could afford to be good today and not so good Wednesday and be great Saturday and lousy next Tuesday, because we get them out and we get somebody else in there and everything will be good to go.

“But now you gotta do it every day, dude. They probably weren’t prepared for that. And at some point, it breaks.”

UConn Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma celebrates on the sideline during a women's college basketball game on Jan. 21, 2023. (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Despite nearly every player missing chunks of the regular season, Geno Auriemma and UConn persevered and are an intriguing No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Eight of the 10 players missed time and a ninth, forward Aaliyah Edwards, didn’t only because the January game against DePaul was postponed for having fewer than seven scholarship players available. The injuries kept coming:

Nika Mühl — Took over as starting point guard, missed a game against Maryland in concussion protocol.

Dorka Juhász — Missed 2022 Final Four with wrist injury and played 26 games this season while dealing with a thumb injury and later an ankle injury that kept her out of the finale.

Aaliyah Edwards — Joined Fudd as the only returning starters from the Final Four run. Injured foot, but did not miss time.

Lou Lopez Sénéchal Sénéchal exited the December win against Princeton late with an apparent foot injury, but did not miss time.

Aubrey Griffin — Missed two games after missing last season with a combination of back, ankle and leg injuries.

Caroline Ducharme — Played only 20 games, missing all of January and two weeks of February while in concussion protocol. She is still dealing with treatment for it.

Freshman Ayanna Patterson missed seven games in concussion protocol, sophomore Amari DeBerry did not play in nine games and freshman Inês Bettencourt, who was added to the roster in August after Bueckers’ injury, did not play in 11 games.

Auriemma, 68, also missed time after the death of his mother in December. He stepped away to focus on his health. Associate head coach Chris Dailey, who fainted on the court ahead of tipoff of a November top-10 matchup against NC State, filled in seamlessly.

The biggest hit was losing Fudd, an early Player of the Year contender who carried UConn offensively in the nonconference schedule. Fudd injured her right knee against Notre Dame on Dec. 4 and missed the full six weeks that UConn said she was expected to be out. In her second game back against Georgetown in January, she re-injured it and the program said it would not release a timeline for her return, leaving outsiders curious if she would be back this year. UConn was suddenly without its back-to-back No. 1 recruits.

“It’s easy when you have a Paige [Bueckers] out there who just puts it all together and fixes things,” Auriemma said. “Or when you have an Azzi [Fudd] out there that just makes four straight 3s and things get fixed.”

There was optimism she would indeed be back by March and she joined warmups ahead of the regular-season finale, but did not play until the Big East tournament. It is a bright spot for a UConn squad that was limping its way into tournament season.

Injuries take toll

Injuries and availability took a toll on players physically — the starter-to-bench minutes and scoring ratio is stark — as well as mentally having to stay focused for every second of those minutes.

There was no greater contrast in depth than UConn’s tilt against No. 1 overall tournament seed South Carolina in a rematch of the 2022 national championship. The Gamecocks’ bench provided nearly half of its team’s points heading into the game and goose-egged the Husky bench, 37-0, in the win.

Within the week, UConn fell on the road to Marquette, 59-52, to lose its first back-to-back games since March 1993.

“All those geniuses who say play your bench more, we have to score points. And we don’t have any scorers off the bench,” Auriemma said that week, a point he reiterated later in February after a shocking loss to St. John’s. “So that works in their mind, too, that every shot we take, those starters, every shot they take, every offensive possession, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure.”

Edwards, a Canadian national team pool player, improved her game in the paint to keep UConn steady. Mühl dished out so many assists she overtook Bird in the program record books. But with so many planned starters sidelined, reserves had to step into a nightly starter role without any opportunity for in-game breaks.

Sénéchal, a four-year star at Fairfield, came up huge on the perimeter and posted her best 3-point percentage of her career (43% from 41% last year) as well as best 2-point clip (49%). She averaged 32 minutes over all 34 games, a surprise necessitated by injuries.

Game minutes weren’t the only problem. Practices were limited with so many injuries and lack of healthy bodies. Practicing the way UConn wanted became an issue with only seven healthy bodies much of the season.

“I feel like our mindset needs to be not worrying about that stuff,” Mühl, who took on starting point guard duty, said after the St. John’s loss on Feb. 21. “Our mindset as players needs to be that we’ve got to go 100% every time and we’re not entitled to win these games. Yeah, we’re low on people [and] we’ve got people getting back, but that hasn’t been an excuse all year. It’s not an excuse now, either.”

Those final few regular season games and the comments made after might prove to be the wake-up call this Huskies group needed.

UConn limps through March

February came in like a lion for UConn with its closer-than-expected 81-77 loss to South Carolina at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Auriemma told reporters afterward he felt better than he did before the game, because that morning, “I didn’t really know how we would respond.” UConn came into it off a stretch of five games in 12 days, recently escaping Villanova by 5 and Providence by 10.

“I know more now than I did at noon and I feel better about my team,” the 11-time national champion coach said after a game played closer than the national championship. “I felt great about my team before, but I feel really good about them right now.”

That changed quickly. The next game was a 7-point loss at Marquette. None of their Big East victories in February other than Villanova on Feb. 1 was by double digits. Ducharme was a spark in her return on Feb. 15, but not a fire starter.

The Huskies went 6-3 overall as their top offense floundered. Once scoring 82.5 points per game in January, they plummeted to 63.6 in February with more drops in assists, shooting percentage, 3-pointers and half the fast-break points.

The regular-season finale was most concerning. UConn escaped Xavier, which went winless in Big East play, by a slim 9 points after crushing them by 36 on Jan. 5. It was a critical boiling point in Storrs.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey look on during the Big East tournament on March 5, 2023. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey both have had health issues of their own this season. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“There’s a reason that we’ve been in those situations. There’s a reason why the last 10 games have been the way they’ve been,” Auriemma said. “It has nothing to do with fatigue. We used that long enough. That story has sailed. Now it’s just being held accountable for doing what you’re being coached to do, not what you feel like doing, not what feels right for you at the moment.

“I’m tired of the fatigue thing, I’m tired of we’re hurt, I’m tired of all that. It has nothing to do with it. All that would keep us from running up and down really well. We run up and down pretty good. We don’t think very well. We don’t speak on defense. We don’t communicate. That’s got nothing to do with [being] tired or being injured. That has to do with a lot of selfishness. And a lot of you don’t want to change.”

Auriemma blasted both players and coaching, referencing himself, as “not being what [they] used to be.” He was asked about the Final Four streak reaching 15.

“The way we are right now, this team, as it is right now, don’t add anybody ... that ain’t happening, [though] they could fool me,” he said.

Days later, they added Fudd.

Azzi Fudd can lift UConn to another Final Four

Fudd mounted an early National Player of the Year case, averaging 17.9 points, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game in those first seven contests. She connected on 61.5% of 2s, 43.4% of 3s (53.4% combined) and 92.3% of free throws.

Then, the Huskies’ reliance on her output was concerning. Now, it’s a bright spot lighting the way to Dallas.

The sophomore shooting guard returned for the Big East tournament and played 16 minutes against Georgetown with 10 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds and 1 steal. The very danger of leaving her open to complete her signature quick release changes the defenses.

“I don’t know that anybody on our team can have a similar impact than she can,” Auriemma said after that win, citing Fudd’s defense, assists and shot selection. “The impact that she’s going to have on the team, you can’t calculate the meaning of that because it’s just everything.”

Against Marquette it was 20 minutes with less impressive stats of 4 points and 0-for-4 from 3-point range. In the title win against Villanova, she came off the bench for 32 minutes, 11 points, 3 threes on eight attempts and 2 steals.

Edwards said the team has more confidence knowing she’s out there, a situation similar to having Bueckers back for the postseason after a leg injury kept her out nearly two months. Bueckers, who sustained the injury against Notre Dame 366 days prior to Fudd, returned Feb. 25 for the final two games of the regular season before the Big East tournament.

Auriemma said it wasn’t fair to expect Fudd to do the same as Bueckers, who led UConn to the championship game in her home state of Minnesota. Don’t be surprised if Fudd follows that path anyway.

“I always said if we didn’t get Azzi back, and Caroline, if we didn’t get the two of them, it was going to be a short postseason probably for us,” Auriemma said during the Big East tournament. “I think having Azzi and hopefully having Caroline gives us our best chance to go far in not just this tournament but the next one.”

UConn drew a friendly region in Seattle 3, which is led by No. 1 seed Virginia Tech and is rounded out by No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Tennessee.

Ohio State, their potential Sweet 16 matchup, struggles defensively, opening up opportunity for Fudd to lead a team that’s scored more than 90 points six times. It scored 86 against Iowa, another Big Ten team with defensive faults.

That leaves Virginia Tech, a hot team out of the ACC that rose into the No. 1-seed line late, and Tennessee, another hot team that has struggled against its tough nonconference schedule, likely waiting in the regional final.

The one downside is for the first time in a long time, UConn won’t play its regional games in its backyard of Connecticut or Albany, New York. It’s a cross-country trek to Seattle, though the city has been unofficially dubbed “UConn West.” The WNBA’s Storm have featured a number of UConn alumnae led by Bird and Stewart in previous seasons.

The greatest gift is avoiding South Carolina until the championship game, which would be an interesting rematch with Fudd on the floor leading a group of mostly former bench players thrown into starting minutes.

“We played so much of this season short-handed and it’s been hard, but I think it’s really helped us and brought us closer together,” Ducharme told SNY on Selection Sunday. “Now to have that knowing that we can play those hard minutes, but knowing that we have people that can come in and help us out, I think it just balances us out. It’s anyone’s night any night and we all know that.”

The Huskies have the advantage of rest and adding back key players to a roster that has, despite its close finishes, figured out how to win without them. UConn’s Final Four streak hinges on the question of which UConn will show up: the UConn of February or the UConn of January that, with a healthier roster, looks a lot like the UConn of March and April the world has seen for 14 years?