Connecticut’s freshmen are already collectively contributing more than almost any other class in program history. Now, it’ll be asked to produce at an even higher level following a fourth season-ending injury to the roster.
Aubrey Griffin, a fifth-year guard/forward and top reserve, will miss the rest of the season because of an ACL tear in her left knee, the team announced Wednesday. The non-contact injury occurred during the win against Creighton last week.
The injury leaves UConn with nine healthy players. Freshman center Jana El Alfy is out with a ruptured left Achilles she sustained at the FIBA U19 World Cup in July. Junior shooting guard Azzi Fudd was ruled out in November with a torn ACL and medial meniscus. Sophomore forward Ayanna Patterson underwent surgery on her left knee in December. And junior guard Caroline Ducharme has only played four games while out indefinitely with head and neck injuries, but is expected to return.
Four of those nine available are freshmen, and head coach Geno Auriemma has turned to them to fill the gaps amid a shaky non-conference performance.
“I don’t know where we’d be without our freshmen right now,” Auriemma said Dec. 31 before Griffin’s injury. “Given what we lost, you know, what we don’t have, and when you think about the people that are missing and you say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna replace them with three freshmen.’ They’ve been tremendous. They really, really have.”
With yet another injury, their production and development are all the more necessary. Because Paige Bueckers alone can’t save the Huskies and drag them back to the Final Four even as she averages numbers near her Naismith Award-winning freshman campaign.
How UConn freshmen stepped up amid winning streak
Since UConn’s current eight-game winning streak began Dec. 6, Auriemma has gone with a smaller four-guard lineup. Freshman guards KK Arnold and Ashlyn Shade are in with senior point guard Nika Mühl, senior center Aaliyah Edwards and Bueckers, a redshirt junior guard, playing power forward.
Griffin was the spark off the bench. She averaged 9.5 points on career-best 54.7% shooting with six rebounds per game, second-most behind Edwards.
It was the sixth different lineup Auriemma used in the team’s first eight games. The first two were the only ones without a freshman, until poor play and injuries necessitated a change.
Logging starter minutes, Arnold’s production increased from 7.4 to 10.3 points per game. Auriemma credits the No. 6-ranked recruit for allowing UConn to “do some things with the ball that we haven’t had in a while” and creating a quicker pace on offense that sparked better production.
“Being as quick as she is, as fast as she is, is a huge benefit for her and for our team,” Auriemma said after a win against Toronto Metropolitan last month. “But knowing when to and when not to, I think is something that you learn little by little with experience.”
Shade took a larger leap. She averaged five points over her first six games and 14 since the win against Ball State in December that began the streak. The two McDonald’s All-Americans combined for seven of UConn’s eight Big East Player of the Week honors.
Freshman Qadence Samuels earned the conference’s first weekly honor of the year when she opened her collegiate stat sheet with 25 total points on 7-of-13 shooting from 3 against Dayton and NC State. She’s played sparingly since and only came close to that type of production in the win over Ball State. She’s averaging 5.4 points in 11.7 minutes
Auriemma has spoken of high expectations for Samuels, particularly as a shooter, and it’s the time for the guard to step into them. At 6-foot, she is one of the taller players left to help an undersized group and was the first off the bench against Georgetown, the first game without Griffin. UConn hosts Providence on Wednesday night in its second game without Griffin.
Ice Brady, a 6-3 redshirt freshman, will be tasked to provide size when UConn needs it. Brady, who missed all of last season with a dislocated patella in her right knee, is one of three healthy forwards and averages 2.9 points on 31.5% shooting.
Where freshman class fits in UConn history
The group is already contributing at levels not usually seen in Storrs, where freshmen typically wait and learn in the wings behind stacks of All-Americans.
Through 14 games, the four have collectively averaged 29.5 points per game (36% of the team’s average points) and 77.7 minutes per game. Both currently stand as the third most in program history since 2000, but this freshman class could surpass the two above them.
The top class was in 2020-21, when Bueckers helmed a group of six freshmen that combined to average 39.9 points and 94.2 minutes per game. Bueckers averaged 20 points in 26.2 minutes over 29 games to win the Naismith and Wooden awards.
Edwards (six starts) and Mühl (15 starts) were also a part of that team, which lost to Arizona in the Final Four. They combined to score 48.7% of the team’s points; taking Bueckers’ 20 points per game out, the five accounted for 32% of the remaining team points.
The 2002-03 class of Barbara Turner, Ann Strother, Nicole Wolff and Willnett Crockett came close to that group’s production, averaging 32 points and 94 minutes collectively per game. Each player averaged between 6.2 and 10.1 points. The freshmen’s 55 starts, headed by Strother’s place in the starting lineup all season, surpassed the 2021 group. They contributed 42.8% of the team’s production to complement junior Diana Taurasi in the second of three consecutive titles from 2002-04.
Not even the 2012-13 freshman class that won four championships in four years had such a heavy burden. Breanna Stewart led three freshmen with 14 starts in 36 games and averaged 13.8 points in 23.7 minutes. With Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson, the trio combined for 24.9 points per game (30% of the team scoring) and 56.9 minutes.
UConn’s current group will already go down as one of the few UConn teams since its dynasty era began to start two freshmen for the majority of the season. The other duo to carry the load as freshmen was Bria Hartley (34 starts) and Stefanie Dolson (36) in 2010-11.