How Lou Lopez Senechal went from UConn women's basketball fan to key player for Huskies: 'She belongs'

Last March, Lou Lopez Sénéchal sat in the stands as a fan at Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport watching UConn women’s basketball play in an Elite Eight game against NC State.

Lopez Sénéchal’s senior season at Fairfield ended 10 days prior and she was figuring out her next steps. She had a year left of collegiate eligibility but the Stags were undergoing a coaching change.

She watched as the Huskies forced the Wolfpack into not one but two overtimes to come out with the win and advance to their 14th straight Final Four. She stood with her former Fairfield teammates and cheered for UConn during big plays and when the final whistle blew.

"I always say I think it's one of the best college basketball games that I've ever watched in person," Lopez Sénéchal said inside Werth Champions Center Sunday after the Selection Show.

She added: "I think that seeing that from, you know, a Fairfield player (perspective) it's always, you know, just super exciting. You see all these talented players, obviously, Coach (Geno Auriemma) and all the coaches and even NC State, all those big teams, and you see the whole crowd, mainly for UConn. So being in the environment was very special."

Unrelated to watching UConn and purely because of the tight turnaround she had in deciding whether to transfer, she officially put her name in the transfer portal soon after the game.

A few days later, UConn assistant coach Morgan Valley reached out. And about a month after watching that Elite Eight game in Bridgeport, Lopez Sénéchal announced she was transferring to UConn.

The fifth-year guard has taken full advantage of her final year of eligibility playing for the most successful program in women’s college basketball. She’s become a staple in the Huskies’ offense, their most consistent scorer, and blended in seamlessly to the new system over the past six-plus months.

The Huskies begin the 2023 NCAA Tournament Saturday in a first-round matchup against Vermont. Instead of watching from the stands as a fan, Lopez Sénéchal will be out on the court wearing those five letters across her chest.

"I think there are a lot of questions and a lot of doubt maybe whenever you're playing at a mid-major school, I think the questions are always gonna be out there: 'Can you do it at a higher level?' And I think she proved it this year," Auriemma said Monday at the Middlesex County Chamber meeting.

The Grenoble, France native arrived in Storrs last June after a dominant senior season at Fairfield as the program’s best player.

Lopez Sénéchal led Fairfield with 19.6 points in 34.2 minutes per game as a senior in 2021-22. She was the Stags’ go-to player and one of the best overall in the MAAC conference. She was named the 2021-22 MAAC Player of the Year and a three-time All-MAAC First Team honoree.

Because of her, Fairfield won the 2022 MAAC Tournament (its first since 1998) and advanced to the NCAA Tournament last spring for the first time since 2001. Lopez Sénéchal was named the 2022 MAAC Tournament MVP after leading Fairfield with 24 points.

But the Stags’ run in the postseason was cut short after they got knocked out of the first round by then-No. 7-seed Texas 70-52. Lopez Sénéchal missed the game's entire second quarter after needing stitches after a hit to the face.

After the loss, Lopez Sénéchal knew she wanted more. She had an extra year of eligibility thanks to the pandemic and wanted to utilize it.

She wanted to grow and better herself. And once Valley reached out, she knew the best way to do so would be by playing for one of the best programs and under the best coach on the biggest stage.

Lopez Sénéchal wanted a challenge and that's why she committed to UConn. Little did she know that she and her new team would be more than challenged.

In August, Paige Bueckers tore her ACL and was ruled out for the 2022-23 season.

Azzi Fudd missed 22 total games with a right knee injury.

In fact, seven other Huskies missed one game or more due to injury or illness over the course of the first four months of the season.

With its best scorers out, Auriemma looked to Lopez Sénéchal to fill the void on offense.

And that's exactly what she did.

Lopez Sénéchal scored in double figures in UConn’s first 21 games. She’s only scored in single figures in three of UConn’s 34 games.

In the biggest games, when the Huskies needed her most, she stayed poised and delivered. The 24-year-old (the oldest Husky on the team this season) led UConn with 26 points in Knoxville against Tennessee on Jan. 26. Two games later, she scored 19 against South Carolina.

"I think that the four years at Fairfield, you know, prepared me for what was going to happen this year, even though, you know, the competition and everything is much higher than it was," she said Sunday. "... But definitely all the attention that we get here at UConn, all those little things, the crowd is bigger, everything. It took me, you know, a few games for me to realize that yeah, 'I'm here and it's really UConn.' "

While other Huskies went in and out of the lineup due to various injuries, Lopez Sénéchal and Aaliyah Edwards were the only two constants. They’re the only two players to play and start in all 34 games of the Huskies’ so far this season.

In her lone season in the Big East, Lopez Sénéchal led the conference with a 43.6 3-point field goal percentage and was ninth with 15.8 points per game. She earned All-Big East First-Team honors. She was named to the All-Big East Tournament Team after helping UConn win its 10th straight conference tournament title.

A week later, on March 15, Lopez Sénéchal was named an AP All-American honorable mention.

"It feels special," she said after winning the Big East Tournament championship. "Winning one conference championship last year (MAAC) and another conference this year, a year apart, it feels really special doing it with this group of girls here. Just right from the beginning, we had a great chemistry and they just included me really well on the team.

"And I think that all the hard work that we had, and all the struggles, and the challenges that we've been through during the whole year, it's just really rewarding. It feels special to do it with my teammates, the whole coaching staff for my first and only year here, and I'm just really happy."

Transferring to the Husky program not only bettered her game but put her on national notice (multiple mock 2023 WNBA Drafts have her going in the first round).

"In all the reports that you read, she went from 'Who's that?' to probably a first-round draft pick. And she deserves it," Auriemma said. "... If I could coach 12 people like Lou, you know, I could do this till I was 100, but they don't come along very often. She's a special kid. And whoever gets her in the WNBA is gonna be really, really glad they got her."

UConn wouldn’t be 29-5 and a No. 2 seed heading into the NCAA Tournament this week if it weren’t for Lopez Sénéchal.

"I think the excitement of playing in last year's tournament, obviously kind of led her here because she wanted that experience again, one more year and to be on that stage," Auriemma said. "And she's proven that she belongs on that stage. So, she might be the most excited player on our team going into that tournament because all the guys she's playing with were in the national championship game last year."

The NCAA Tournament begins this weekend and after getting knocked out in last year's first round, Lopez Sénéchal is ready to compete for a national championship as a Husky.

"I just can't wait to start,' she said. "I had the opportunity last year to play at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. So I know how it starts. I know how it is. And obviously, the expectations here are much higher, but the expectations have been high all year long. So it's not really new, I think, for me or for everyone else, and we're just going to take it a game at a time and be prepared for every game. But I'm just gonna really try to enjoy all this, you know, last few games because realizing that after that I'm gonna start my professional career."   @maggie_vanoni