Storrs — In this case, UConn’s bench for a Friday night game at Gampel Pavilion featured three of the Huskies’ traditional starters in Paige Bueckers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Caroline Ducharme, all of them nursing injuries, as well as substitutes Amari DeBerry, Piath Gabriel and Evina Westbrook.
Back on the court facing DePaul, sophomore guard Nika Muhl crossed halfcourt and, without looking, found teammate Dorka Juhasz to her left for a layup, causing what was essentially chaos among Bueckers and Co.
“She slapped my butt so hard; oh, my God,” Muhl said, referring to Bueckers and the celebration that ensued.
It has been the case regularly for the No. 10 UConn women’s basketball team this season. Due to various injuries and illnesses, eight of the 12 players have missed at least two games; only Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards have played all 22 games.
But in every case, the bench served as UConn’s sixth man, sometimes in a comic role, such as after a made 3-point field goal, and sometimes in a serious manner, when Bueckers took over the huddle during a timeout in a recent loss to Villanova.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who brings his team to Cincinnati to play a 7 p.m. game Friday at Xavier (SNY), the commencement of a five-games-in-10-days sequence to end the regular season.
UConn (17-5, 11-1 Big East) has a three-game lead in the loss column over league foes Creighton (13-4), DePaul (12-4) and Villanova (11-4). Xavier is 8-16, 3-12.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to try to get kids who aren’t playing to get excited about kids who are playing,” Auriemma said following Sunday’s 72-58 road win vs. Marquette. “If you go to any rec place or you go to any travel games, you see the kids who aren’t playing, especially the parents, how miserable they are when their kid isn’t playing.
“So to have your bench be really active and be involved, and Paige is a big part of that … and Caroline and Olivia wish they were playing. They were really, really involved. We talk a lot about that all the time, ‘Try to be in the game even when you’re not in the game.'”
UConn senior Christyn Williams said it makes her laugh whenever the team is having a film session because invariably there are joyful clips of the players on the bench.
“Just seeing Paige and Amari and Piath and all of them just being excited for us, just shows what type of teammates they are,” Williams said. “I love that.”
Muhl, meanwhile, said Bueckers serves as a part-time assistant coach, too. What’s been her biggest piece of advice to Muhl?
“To shoot the ball when coach says don’t shoot the ball,” Muhl said. “I feel like she’s been telling me that since my freshman year. They’re kind of in conflict there … I just kind of listen to myself.”
Added Muhl: “Especially on the road where everybody in the gym is against you, just hearing your bench and seeing their facial expressions and everything just gets us going. Paige has been great at that. It just shows how much she means to our game, being on the bench or on the floor.”
Auriemma is looking forward to the day the list of players on the bench because they have to be is soon nonexistent. Bueckers took part in practice Wednesday for the first time since suffering a left tibial plateau fracture on Dec. 5, still with a brace in place on her left knee. Nelson-Ododa (groin) and Ducharme (head) also practiced. It is uncertain when the trio of starters will rejoin the lineup.
Auriemma, who gave the team Monday and Tuesday off to rest following the trip to Marquette, said Wednesday that the Huskies practice in “shifts” due to the wear and tear.
“Little by little we’re getting to where we can put people out there and there will be unlimited time they can be there and you have your choice,” Auriemma said. “Right now you just look out there and say ‘Who can go?’ Come out and start practice and get some stretching and run two laps … and there’s four people running. It’s been that kind of year.”