UConn women’s basketball injuries leave team searching for answers

STORRS — The state of an unprecedented wave of injuries besetting the UConn women’s basketball team has moved well beyond inconvenience and Dorka Juhász, like anyone monitoring the situation, is wondering why this has come to be.

“There’s a lot of different phases we’re going through, trying to figure it out,” Juhász, a graduate student forward, said. “Did we do something bad? Is it karma? It’s been a lot of hard things to adjust to. Because I’m an older player on this team, it’s a little easier. But talking to the freshmen, it’s, ‘Is this college basketball? Is this how it’s supposed to be?’ There’s just so many crazy things happening, and what can you say?”

Juhász spoke Saturday afternoon at halftime of the UConn men’s game against Creighton at Gampel Pavilion. Most of the women’s team was in attendance, with time initially allotted for practice and preparation having become time to recalibrate.

The women’s game scheduled for Sunday against DePaul, it was announced Friday, was postponed because the Huskies don’t have enough healthy players.

More distressing week by week, even season by season, the circumstances finally added up to something unmanageable. With two more players (Aaliyah Edwards and Ayanna Patterson) sustaining injuries in Thursday’s game at Xavier, UConn was down to six available scholarship players, one below the Big East Conference minimum.

So the Huskies, one more injury or foul-out away from having no substitutes on the bench, could not play Sunday. Wednesday’s game at St. John’s is in question, too. The state of the roster and recovering players was to be reassessed Sunday and Monday.

“The thing that is sometimes unfortunate and disappointing is, you have people who are starting to try to point the finger,” athletic director David Benedict said in his office Saturday morning. “There is no reason why this is happening. There’s nothing that we can pinpoint, like, ‘Oh, if we stopped practicing we’d probably be healthier.’

“Is there a pattern? Is there something that we’re not doing, or are doing, that is having some type of material impact on these injuries? There’s nothing we can pinpoint. … People around sports have all heard the term injury-prone. You just hope we’re not injury-prone and we’re just going through a bad cycle.”

Currently unavailable for the Huskies: Azzi Fudd (knee), Paige Bueckers (torn ACL), Ice Brady (dislocated patella), Caroline Ducharme (concussion protocol), Edwards (foot), Patterson (undisclosed, but she hit her head to the floor in the Xavier game).

Currently available: Juhász, Nika Mühl, Lou Lopez Sénéchal, Inês Bettencourt, Aubrey Griffin, Amari DeBerry.

Meanwhile, coach Geno Auriemma, 68, remains away from the team with no timetable for his return. He has missed four games so far, feeling tired and generally unwell, all the while grieving the December death of his mother, Marsiella.

“To say he’s fine would be inappropriate from the standpoint of, he’s gone through a lot,” Benedict said. “I haven’t lost both of my parents yet. My mother is still alive. But any time you deal with that, you think about your own mortality and not having parents anymore. I’m sure that, the injuries, the normal wear and tear of the season, mix in a few other things, and it’s hard.”

UConn, which has won 11 national championships, is 13-2 this season and ranked No. 5 in the most recent Associated Press national poll. Auriemma remains in regular contact with associate head coach Chris Dailey and players.

“I think if it’s just left up to him, he’d probably be back today,” Benedict said. “What I want is ultimately what’s best for him and for him to be able to come back in a way that is as close to 100 percent as you can be. Because having been affiliated with the program for a while, when we do go as long as we do into the season, it’s a long march and there’s wear and tear that occurs.”

The UConn injuries have ranged in nature from debilitating, such as those sustained by Bueckers and Brady, to more minor, such as Ducharme’s neck stiffness or Juhász’s broken thumb. There has been one puzzling moment after another, from Amari DeBerry getting stuck in the Buffalo area due to blizzards to associate head coach Chris Dailey fainting before a game.

None of it is comical. Players have paid significant tolls, both physical and emotional. The injuries have been destructive in how they have snowballed. Healthy and available players are not unaffected, having to carry a greater game-day load while managing hopes, expectations, friendships and the fragile nature of an entire situation.

The program has become increasingly protective of players, choosing not to disclose certain injuries. Everyone involved is worn out by the discussion, the prevailing themes of which began during last season’s injury-plague run to a 14th consecutive Final Four.

“Going through it the first couple of times somebody got injured, we were like, OK, it’s going to end,” said Juhász, who is planning for a career in sports psychology. “But there hasn’t been a time where we were like, we’re good now. Somebody was always coming in and somebody else was leaving. It’s been really hard. We still don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re really trying to be optimistic. We support each other.

“This is just crazy that right now we’re in this situation. We all want to play. We all want to win. We want to compete. We got to the point where we don’t have enough healthy players and it’s just super hard. It’s like your favorite candy, and they’re just taking it away from you.”

Benedict came to the defense of a staff charged with protecting UConn players.

“There are some, I’m picking up, who are trying to blame our strength and conditioning coach or our athletic trainer,” Benedict said of sports performance director Andrea Huddy, who began her second stint with the program in May 2021, and athletic trainer Janelle Francisco, a longtime member of the UConn athletic staff who has worked with women’s basketball since 2016.

“The two most recent injuries – Ayanna got hit in the head and Aaliyah ran into a chair,” Benedict continued. “That has nothing to do with them. Azzi Fudd got rolled up by Aaliyah in the Notre Dame game. None of that has anything to do with those things. And if you go back and actually identify each of the injuries – Dorka falling down and breaking her wrist last year, that has nothing to do with it. A broken finger, those things happen.

“It’s all random. There’s no reason why. But it seems like sometimes certain people have more of a tendency to find a way to get hurt even through no fault of their own. It just happens. And part of that is the way kids play, and I think we play hard.”

Social media gives an immediate public voice to criticism, much of it anonymous and irresponsible, and a search for answers takes place where they don’t necessarily exist. Some social media posts even celebrated UConn’s troubles.

“Unfortunately, that medium, from a communications standpoint, allows people who live in that type of lifestyle with ample opportunity to do that,” Benedict said. “It took me a while to get to a place where I just didn’t pay attention, and I moved on. But some of that stuff obviously impacts and affects the coaches and the kids.”

What UConn is dealing with is a cruel happening of sport, a relentless convergence of untimely developments. After the COVID-disrupted 2020-21 season, the Huskies played their way into another Final Four in 2021-22 despite Bueckers missing most of the regular season and all but two scholarship players missing time due to injury.

Players and coaches entered this season relieved to have survived what felt like an anomaly.

It has been just as bad, perhaps worse, in 2022-23.

Bueckers and Brady sustained their season-ending injuries in the preseason. Juhász, who spent all offseason rehabilitating from a gruesome wrist fracture sustained in last season’s NCAA Tournament, broke a thumb Nov. 14 against Texas. Sophomore guard/forward Ducharme, who had offseason hip surgery, missed time with neck stiffness. Edwards played with a mask to protect a broken nose.

Still, behind a healthy Fudd, the prolific sophomore guard who also missed a large portion of last season, the Huskies rolled to a 6-0 record with three victories over top-10 teams. Fudd was looking like a national player of the year candidate and UConn was looking like a national championship contender. Then Fudd sustained a knee injury Dec. 4, during UConn’s loss at Notre Dame, and it was becoming clear that UConn had not escaped the absurd.

“We’re really optimistic that, one day, it’s going to stop,” Juhász said. “There’s all these little things going through your head. But at the end of the day it’s just, wow, this is something we really can’t control. Everybody is still saying, ‘It’s going to end.'”

The players have each other. The one benefit of so many injuries, Juhász said, is that everyone on the team has experience with trying to work their way back, some advice to share.

“The only thing I can tell you is by observation, and when I am around them they seem to be very much business as usual,” Benedict said. “That’s not to say that individually, personally, that all of this isn’t affecting them. But UConn women’s basketball is not what it has been because things change every day. They have a system, a plan, a culture, expectations. And regardless of what’s going on, they seem to stay focused on those things.”

Benedict met with Dailey Friday morning in his office, learning of Patterson’s injury and the state of the roster. Later in the day, he put in motion the postponement of Sunday’s game.

“It became readily apparent as the day wore on,” Benedict said, “that it was not a situation that we should be putting out athletes in.”

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