With Azzi Fudd out, UConn women's basketball team set to manage 'toughest stretch of the season'

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma calls out to his team during the first half of an NCAA basetball game against the Seton Hall Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in South Orange, N.J. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma calls out to his team during the first half of an NCAA basetball game against the Seton Hall Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in South Orange, N.J. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

STORRS — The UConn women’s basketball team is without star sophomore Azzi Fudd for the time being, but the specific length of her absence is still to be determined.

This much is known: Fudd will be on crutches for the next two weeks as she nurses her right knee, which she re-injured last weekend. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said there is no tear and Fudd will not require surgery, but the injury will  keep her out into February.

"Every time someone has something that happens that involves their knee, especially someone from high school that has had some issues, you always worry how long will it take," Auriemma said inside Gampel Pavilion Friday afternoon. "I think everybody heals differently and I don’t anybody can definitely say. … But there’s enough concern that we need to let it heal, however long that takes."

Fudd reinjured her right knee on Jan. 15 against Georgetown. The guard initially injured her knee on Dec. 4 against Notre Dame and sat out eight games, five-plus weeks, recovering. She returned to the court on Jan. 11 and played 20 minutes against St. John’s.

UConn’s game against the Hoyas was her second game back. She came off the bench and played 12 minutes before taking an awkward step against a defender in the final minutes of the first half and getting injured.

On Friday, Auriemma said Fudd will spend the next two weeks not putting weight on the knee while wearing a brace. Auriemma said Fudd will be re-evaluated after that period.

She’ll miss at least the next four games, including Saturday’s against Butler (noon/SNY), in that span.

"Forget how much she means to us and what we’re trying to do," Auriemma said. "It’s just, if you’re a basketball player and you love to play and you’re as good as she is, when you’re not able to be on the court, it’s just gut-wrenching in some ways. Especially when you spend all that time trying to get back and get back on the court for two games."

On a positive note, the No.-5 Huskies could possibly have eight players available against the Bulldogs.

Auriemma said freshman Ayanna Patterson has been working her way back from concussion protocol and is "hopeful" to resume physical contact in practice this weekend. He said they’ll know if she’s ready to play after Saturday’s shootaround before the game.

Freshman Inês Bettencourt missed time this week following Tuesday’s game at Seton Hall due to illness. Auriemma said she tested negative for COVID-19 and was feeling well enough to participate in practice on Friday. He expected her to be available on Saturday.

Even if just one extra body, the extra set of legs will help the Huskies manage their workload as they're scheduled to play five games within the next 11 days. That's why the staff will be careful with how much time players are on their feet, with the workload during games, and how much recovery time they need.

"I think these next 11 days are probably going to be the most intense ...  this will be the toughest stretch of the season coming up," Auriemma said.

With a constantly fluctuating rotation, Auriemma has changed the way he runs practices in order to give the players ample rest and recovery between games.

He said in the past he would have a practice go about three hours until they felt like they had done enough. Now, he says, sometimes they’ll call it after just 30 minutes.

Why the switch? The lack of available players to practice with is one thing, but Auriemma also trusts his players to not push themselves on off days and to take care of their bodies the way they need.

"We don't do some of the things we used to do. We spend more time on recovery days," he said Tuesday after the team's win at Seton Hall. "We give certain kids more time off during practice, less reps than other kids. And basically, we asked them to be adults about it and take care of themselves. ...

"I keep telling them all the time, 'Listen, we have a lot of players in the WNBA and there's a reason for that. Our guys learn to act like pros when they're at UConn. They take care of themselves. They take care of business. And you don’t learn that once you become a pro, it’s too late then. You'll get cut. So not only is it important for you now but it's important for you and your future.' "

Point guard Nika Mühl is averaging a team-high 35.2 minutes per game followed by Dorka Juhász at 33.1 minutes and Aaliyah Edwards at 32.4.

Edwards said rest includes both physical time off her feet while also giving their minds rest from all the up-and-down they've had to digest off the court this season. Having so many games in less than a two-week span will help prepare them for the back-to-back games come March.

"It's a lot but you just get through it, making sure that recovery-wise after games, after practices, taking care of my body and doing the things I need to do to prepare for games and practice," Edwards said. "But yeah, it is very tiring on my body. But you know, as any basketball player will tell you, it's a physical sport and you just get through it. ...

"It's also good because by the time we hit March, with the Big East Tournament, and also the March Madness tournament, it's gonna be a lot and it's gonna be demanding on our bodies. So, I think right now is really, mentally we're going to overcome through the fatigue and uphold ourselves to the standard that we know we can play at."

UConn will host Butler on Saturday before hosting DePaul on Monday (a rescheduled game after the teams' initial meeting on Jan. 8 was postponed since the Huskies didn't have enough players). The team will then leave Wednesday to travel to Knoxville to face longtime foe Tennessee.

It's a lot, but as the Huskies have shown already throughout this season, and last year, they often thrive in the storm of adversity.

"Our kids are tired," Auriemma said. "They’re physically tired. They’re mentally tired as anybody would be at this point in the season having played that many minutes and with that constant (injuries), but somehow, someway we find a way and we’ll just keep doing that."

Maggie.Vanoni@hearstmediact.com  @maggie_vanoni