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Geno says UConn heading to Sweet 16 ‘more confident’ than last year

PORTLAND, Ore. – Last year, the Sweet 16 was where the unthinkable happened for the UConn women’s basketball team: They ended their season on a shocking upset loss to Ohio State that snapped their streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.

This season, the 3-seed Huskies can surpass last year’s result with a win Saturday over 7-seed Duke in their regional semifinal. And while it may not necessarily translate to a win, coach Geno Auriemma said “it doesn’t feel the same” as last year either.

“We don’t seem to be as mentally or physically worn out like we were last year at this time,” Auriemma told reporters Friday. “I think having Paige [Bueckers] makes us a little more confident than maybe we were last year at this time. I think KK [Arnold] gives us a different element that we didn’t have last year at this time. I would say those two things probably are the biggest difference.

“I think our practices and everything that we’ve done leading up to this feels a little bit different than it did last season. The whole month of February last year was a real, real, real, real grind for us. I think our last hurrah was the Big East tournament. We did our best to win that thing. Then we had a huge struggle with Baylor [in the second round], and we just didn’t have anything left. We ran into the wrong team at the wrong time.”

Auriemma added that “Duke may be way, way better than us tomorrow” but says he thinks the team is “in a better frame of mind than we were last year.”

The Huskies have dealt with an onslaught of injuries for the last three seasons, most significantly when Paige Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year, was sidelined for the entirety of 2022-23 with an ACL tear.

This year hasn’t been without its adversity either: While Bueckers is back and has returned to top form following two injury-plagued seasons, six of UConn’s 14 players are out for the 2023-24 campaign with injuries, including 2021 No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd and fifth-year senior Aubrey Griffin.

UConn’s issues seemed to come to a head in last year’s Sweet 16, where they struggled against Ohio State’s press due to their dearth of ball handlers. The Huskies are hopeful that particular problem doesn’t manifest Saturday as point guard Nika Muhl will also have Bueckers and freshman Arnold on the floor.

“Last year a lot of us were not prepared, including me, for everything that we had going on that year, the injuries, the mental aspect of everything going on was just overwhelming,” Muhl said Friday. “And I feel like Coach just knew we were gonna blow up in one moment, one game, and unfortunately, it was that one. But this year, I hate to say it, but we’re kind of used to all of that and we know how to respond to it better.”

UConn — which was the preseason No. 2 team this year before a rash of injuries left them with seven rotation players — suffered five losses in nonconference play, all to teams that made the Sweet 16, but went perfect against Big East competition to win both the regular season and tournament titles. The 11-time national champions are now appearing in their 30th-consceutive Sweet 16 and can make their 28th Elite Eight with a win on Saturday.

Bueckers — who led UConn to Final Four appearances in 2021 and 2022 — has been playing some of the best basketball of her career across Big East and NCAA tournament play, averaging 28.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 3.2 steals, 2.8 blocks and just 1.6 turnovers per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 61.3%.

Due to injury and graduation losses as well as the influx of four freshmen, only two active UConn players, Muhl and Aaliyah Edwards, took the court for the Ohio State game, and Muhl said she plans to rewatch it later Friday evening. Both have also announced this will be their final year at UConn, and they won’t use the COVID waiver for a fifth year of eligibility, adding to their urgency to keep their season alive.

“Especially us that were playing, me and Aaliyah being in that position again, we don’t want it to end the same way,” Muhl said. “That’s our biggest motivator. And that’s the biggest reason for us to do things completely different, 10 times better, more focused, more locked in, anything that we can do.”

“You can always tell the level of effort, motivation, little things like that, little things especially, just trying to make sure that everything is perfect and in place. It’s never going to be perfect, but just trying to strive for that perfection, expect it from everybody else, demand it from everybody else, it’s gonna make a huge difference.”

Auriemma cautioned that last year’s results have little bearing on this year’s.

“That’s the beauty of playing in the NCAA tournament, is if you won last year, you have to put that behind you. That’s not going to help you win this year. If you lost last year, you have to put that behind you because that doesn’t mean you’re going to lose this year,” Auriemma said. “Each and every tournament game takes on kind of a life of its own, and you have to either be good enough to win that day or you’re not going to win… Each and every thing has to be done on its own and you have to figure it out during those 40 minutes.”

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