What we learned from UConn’s weekend in Bahamas: Fudd’s growth, inconsistent post play, bench issues

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

UConn went to the Bahamas for business.

After three games in three days, the Huskies are returning with their first loss of the season along with a handful of lessons and things to improve upon before starting conference play next week.

As the team spent its final day in the Bahamas on Tuesday, UConn also dropped down to No. 3 in the latest AP Top 25 poll.

From a breakout performance from freshman Azzi Fudd to a 19-turnover loss to South Carolina, here’s what we learned from UConn’s run in the Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament:

Fudd’s up-and-down weekend

Fudd played small roles in UConn’s season opener against Arkansas and in its blowout of Minnesota in the first game in the Bahamas. Whether it was pregame nerves or in-game overthinking, Fudd seemed reluctant to take her own shots and passed the ball instead.

The No. 1 Class of 2021 recruit finally got her legs with an 18-point, six-3-pointer performance during UConn’s semifinal game against South Florida. In 27 minutes, she helped not only create momentum shifts for the Huskies but carried them through the Bulls’ comeback attempts and onto advancing to Monday’s championship.

But while Fudd’s shooting off the bench can still a weapon for UConn, the freshman is still just four games into her college career and making, well, freshman mistakes. When she found herself double-teamed, instead of trying to take a dribble and break free she immediately passed off the ball, which would then often lead to an opponent steal and UConn turnover.

Against South Carolina, Fudd played just 10 minutes and missed her only shot. Expectations remain high for the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year, but Fudd will need to grow.

“I keep reminding myself that this is probably the worst you’re ever going to see Azzi,” coach Geno Auriemma said after the team’s win over South Florida. “So what’s that say? She’s got a chance to be a pretty special player.”

Lack of consistency from post players

UConn was outrebounded twice this weekend. First by South Florida (34-29) and then by South Carolina (42-25). While we saw some great plays by the Huskies’ bigs throughout their three games, the lack of consistency was a large part of why UConn lost the championship game to the Gamecocks.

Senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa came up huge for UConn during the first half of Monday’s championship. She used her body and put up three major blocks against South Carolina to help UConn open a 13-point lead in the first 20 minutes.

But against the Bulls and the Gamecocks, Nelson-Ododa and sophomore Aaliyah Edwards were unable to carry the frontcourt load by themselves. Auriemma kept graduate transfer Dorka Juhász as the first or second player off the bench during the weekend, but even the former Ohio State All-Big Ten selection ran into trouble, sometimes rushing defense and coming up short without the rebound.

Auriemma said “rebounding is fixable” following Monday’s loss to South Carolina, and it is. And the Huskies have a lot of time to get it right and work on bringing guards to help out under the rim, as well. Plus, they’ll have more depth in the frontcourt rotation when junior Aubrey Griffin returns from a high ankle sprain.

“I think, as guards, it’s our job to get in there and get a rebound and box their main rebounders out,” senior Evina Westbrook said. “It’s our job to get in there, get the rebound if they’re (UConn bigs) putting in all the work boxing out their best rebounders.”

Bench play

UConn had 12 available players this weekend (Griffin sat out all three games due to her injury), and 10 saw action across all three games.

During the Huskies’ 88-58 win over Minnesota, 10 players were used. Sophomore Piath Gabriel made her season debut and, with freshman Caroline Ducharme, scored her first collegiate points. Four of UConn’s reserves played double-digit minutes.

On Sunday and Monday — both closer games — nine players were used. Sophomore star Paige Bueckers averaged 35 minutes across the three games, while last year’s go-to sixth player and eventual starter, sophomore Nika Mühl, averaged just 6.3 minutes.

While the best players for each game will play the most minutes, it’s surprising to see Mühl play so few minutes as she was pushed to the eighth spot in the rotation with Fudd and Juhász the first two off the bench.

With Big East play sure to bring more room for more players to find time on the court (Mir McLean made her season debut for two minutes against South Carolina, but freshman Amari DeBerry has yet to play), it will be interesting to see how the lineup is adjusted once Griffin is healthy.

This is only November…

Following the loss to South Carolina, senior Christyn Williams and Westbrook spoke to the media about how the game was a learning opportunity. They were quiet, as most players would be after losing to the top-ranked team, but their demeanor was confident and strong.

“We’re going to grow a lot from this game,” Williams said. “We’d much rather have this L in November than later in the season in March.”

After last season’s lone loss to Arkansas, UConn did a 180 and got better. Defense was stronger, offense was more in sync and players adjusted to their roles. Not only did they win out until the Final Four, including an upset of South Carolina in overtime in Storrs, but the Huskies became the nation’s No. 1 team through the end of the regular season.

UConn will no doubt learn from Monday and from the past weekend. Starting next Friday with the opening of Big East play at Seton Hall, the Huskies have five games before the winter holiday break. Four out of the five are nonconference games that will test the team, including two of the AP’s Top 25 in Louisville (No. 10) and UCLA (No. 19). The team will have strong competition to test potential new lineups and nail down new defensive plays to help aide its post players.

We’re still over four months from March. Every single program will look vastly different in the spring than they do now. While the Bahamas trip definitely exposed some holes in UConn’s lineup, there’s plenty of time for the team to improve.

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com