The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

UConn women’s basketball notebook | Huskies return to Final Four with underdog mentality

Due to injuries, only eight Huskies have appeared in the NCAA Tournament, and only six have played in all four games.
Ayrton Breckenridge
UConn guard Nika Mühl answers questions from reporters during a day of press conferences, open locker rooms, and open practices ahead of an NCAA Tournament Final Four game between No. 1 Iowa and No. 3 UConn at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on Thursday, April 4, 2024. The Hawkeyes and the Huskies face off Friday at 8:30 p.m. CT.

CLEVELAND — If you asked Geno Auriemma in June 2023 about the potential of this year’s UConn squad, he would tell you he expects his Huskies to play South Carolina for the national championship.

Then, one by one, five expected contributors suffered injuries: Caroline Ducharme, Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin, Ayanna Patterson, and Jana El Alfy.

Auriemma started having second thoughts.

“You have to look at your team, and you have to say, ‘Do we have an answer for everything that happens?’ And if the answer’s no, then you just have to cross your fingers and hope that thing doesn’t happen, or those two things that you know you have no answer for,” Auriemma said at a press conference Thursday.

Auriemma said it’s even harder dealing with these scenarios because the expectations for UConn are so high, and a lot of these expectations are unrealistic, he added. The Huskies have won 11 national championships, tied with the UCLA men’s team for the most of any program in Division I college basketball. Their last title came in 2016. The Huskies didn’t make last season’s national semifinals for the first time in 15 years.

Auriemma said this has been one of the most challenging seasons in his career, and making it to the Final Four with this specific team “is probably one of the most gratifying things that [he has] experienced in all [his] 40 years at Connecticut.”

Nika Mühl, who averages 6.8 points, 6.5 assists, and four rebounds for the Huskies, said she and her teammates couldn’t “mourn [the injuries] forever,” so they stepped up and played for each other and those on the bench.

“They say playing at Connecticut is the greatest thing ever, but playing at Connecticut is hard as hell because if two guys foul out tomorrow, we’re supposed to be able to compete five against three because that’s the illogical, delusional expectations that exist out there,” Auriemma said.

Only eight Huskies have appeared in the NCAA Tournament, and only six have played in all four games. UConn is led by guard Paige Bueckers, who won National Player of the Year as a freshman and then missed last season with an ACL injury. She has scored 20-plus points in the last seven games and is known for her high basketball IQ and ability to score in all facets of the game. Iowa guard Caitlin Clark and Bueckers have known and played against one another since middle school and headline Friday’s matchup.

Both Clark and Bueckers said they don’t view the game as one against the other and are more focused on doing anything they can to help their teams win. Auriemma said Bueckers would rather score 10 points and the Huskies win versus her putting up a 50-piece and losing.

“Caitlin comes down and makes a huge 3, don’t think that Paige is going to pass the next one up and pass it to somebody,” Auriemma said. “So I think there will be a little bit of that. But it won’t be — ‘if I score more points than Caitlin, Connecticut’s going to win.’ It won’t be that at all. And it won’t be, I have to match everything that [Clark] does.”

UConn leads the all-time series against Iowa 6-3, with the Huskies winning the last six contests. The last time Iowa beat UConn was in November 1990. In Clark and Bueckers’ rookie seasons, UConn defeated Iowa in the Sweet 16. In November 2022, when Bueckers was hurt, the Huskies beat the Hawkeyes, 86-79.

Mühl said UConn can look at its previous matchups with Iowa to recall what they did or did not do well, but it’s two different teams this season, and Huskie players are more focused “on us and our game.” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder compared what Mühl does for UConn to Gabbie Marshall’s contributions to the Hawkeyes. Bluder said the Huskie plays “extremely hard defensively” and doesn’t need to score to have an impact on the game.

Auriemma said he doesn’t talk to his team “about winning a lot” or taking home the NCAA title because “everybody knows that’s why we’re here.”

The players mentioned a few times how nobody believed UConn would make it to the Final Four after the injuries it endured. Bueckers said instead of focusing on what they lost, they appreciated what they still had. The Huskies are taking an underdog mentality into Friday’s game against the Hawkeyes.

“Just trying to prove ourselves right, that we’re still in this, we’re still going to play the UConn way, and we still hold ourselves to the standard,” Aaliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 forward from Canada, said. “I know a lot of people are counting us out, so just playing with that extra motivation to play to win.”

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About the Contributors
Kenna Roering
Kenna Roering, Sports Editor
Kenna Roering is The Daily Iowan's sports editor. She is a junior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism with a minor in sports and recreation management. Kenna previously worked as a sports reporter for men's wrestling and volleyball and was the summer sports editor in 2023. This is her second year with the DI.
Ayrton Breckenridge
Ayrton Breckenridge, Managing Visuals Editor
Ayrton Breckenridge is the Managing Visuals Editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and cinema. This is his fourth year working for the DI.