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Can Connecticut get “nasty” enough for a deep tournament run?

UConn Athletics photo.
UConn Athletics photo.

The Huskies’ plan going into today’s round of the Big East Tournament? Getting mean about it.

“It’s gonna be really scary — and definitely scary for our opponents — because we’re gonna be a nasty team with everyone healthy” freshman guard Azzi Fudd said after UConn beat Tennessee a month ago, behind her 25 points.

Three days later, the Huskies lost to Villanova in a game that looked anything but scary until the last two and a half minutes. Although a dynamic comeback fell two points short that game, that run seems to have lit a spark under a Husky team that looked vulnerable all season.

The return of Paige Bueckers for the last two games of the regular season added a large dose of fuel for that spark to ignite.

Since the loss to the Wildcats, UConn has won eight games in a row by an average of 34.5 points. Bueckers returned to the court Feb. 25, 19 games after her knee injury. For the first time all year, the team had every player available for a game. [Aubrey Griffin is out for the year following back surgery. She did not play a single game.]

The Huskies had showed some signs of getting “nasty,” even before Bueckers return. The defense, among the nation’s best all season, has been absolutely smothering recently.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa has been playing her best ball of her career during February, anchoring the defense, leading the team in passing, and beginning to assert herself in the paint as a scorer. Fellow senior Christyn Williams began to play to her potential, and to do so every game. Fudd showed why she was considered the best freshman of her class.

Nika Muhl, the most intense player on the roster, further ramped it up on both ends, leading a smothering defense that held opponents to shooting in the low 30s, and the coaches to vote her Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East.

“She has some craziness,” forward Dorka Juhasz said recently. “As a European, I can really appreciate that.”

Speaking of Juhasz, a 6-5 transfer from Ohio State: she has also come alive offensively. Since the Villanova game she is shooting 58 percent (42 percent on threes), including games of 21, 22 and 14 points. Her senior day game was her most aggressive of the season, with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks.

Sophomore Aaliyah Edwards has come out long period of inconsistent play to be the dynamic player who won the Sixth Player award in the conference as a freshman.

“Aaliyah adds a dimension that [our other post players] don’t have,” Auriemma said. “In how she can guard different positions, and how she goes to the boards. She offensively rebounds, runs the floor. You know, when she’s doing that then she’s a difference-maker on our team.”

And finally, Evina Westbrook is back as the do-everything player the team relied on all last season. Moved out of the starting lineup in mid-February, Westbrook has provided the spark off the bench that Auriemma thought he needed.

“I said, ‘Evina, we don’t have anybody coming off the bench that changes the game, so that’s gonna have to be you. That’s all there is to it,’” Auriemma said. “Only I don’t think I really said it.”

“I think I said, ‘Nika, you’re gonna start.’ And I think E[vina] figured out the rest. This is the best basketball that she’s played in all the time that she’s been here. She’s the Evina I always thought she’d be.”

Bueckers’ return, despite limited minutes (roughly 12 per game), provided an obvious lift in confidence for a team already moving in that direction. “Our team’s confidence sometimes waivers, goes up and down,” Auriemma said after her first game back. “But if you have somebody like Paige on the floor whose confidence never wavers, that kind of is infectious.”

It has, in fact, been infectious. Her teammates are more upbeat than all season.

“I think we knew that there was going to come a point in time where we were going to click,”  Westbrook said following a 57 point win over Providence last Sunday. “Even when we were going through our ‘hell-wave’ and everything was just not going the way we wanted it to, we kept on saying ‘It’s going to click, it’s going to click, it’s going to click.’ Over this past week, two weeks, it’s been clicking.”

As to the next month of play, UConn is feeling pretty good.

“I think we can go far,” Williams said on her senior day. “We have a lot of potential with this team, just getting everybody healthy. We obviously still have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to work on and sharpen up before the NCAA tournament. But I feel like we have a good shot.”

Asked if the team had reached ‘nasty’ status yet, Williams demurred. “We are getting there,” she said, “but we’re not quite there yet. We’ll get there, though.”

“Yeah, we’ll get there,” Westbrook added.

With Bueckers working her way back into competition, with a suddenly deep team looking like they are ready to play hard all the time, with Auriemma able – and comfortable with – playing nine deep, the Huskies enter a Big East Tournament looking like the contenders that they have been nearly every year.

If, as is possible, the Big East Tournament becomes a relatively easy tune-up weekend, UConn will be the team nobody wants to see in their bracket of the NCAA Tournament.

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