UConn women’s basketball team adapting to playing without Paige Bueckers — and now Nika Mühl — for the foreseeable future

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  • Paige Bueckers
    American basketball player

When it rains, it pours.

Three days after UConn women’s basketball star Paige Bueckers suffered a tibial plateau fracture that will sideline her for six to eight weeks, the Huskies received more bad news Wednesday. They will be without their other point guard, Nika Mühl, for approximately three weeks due to a nagging foot issue.

The Mühl development came as a surprise from onlookers, but coach Geno Auriemma said the program is trying to be cautious to prevent the reaction she’s experiencing in her foot from becoming worse.

“How quickly people heal, it depends on each individual,” Auriemma said. “That’s going to be the determining factor [in how quickly Mühl returns] really.”

With freshman Azzi Fudd still out due to the beginning of a stress reaction in her foot, the Huskies are now down to three guards — senior Christyn Williams, redshirt senior Evina Westbrook and freshman Caroline Ducharme — for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, junior Aubrey Griffin (back/ankle/leg) was expected to make her season debut last week but experienced a setback in practice. Auriemma said she tried to give it a go Tuesday, but it “wasn’t really successful” and she didn’t practice Wednesday. “I’m not quite sure what her status could be either Thursday or Saturday. I guess we’ll see day to day how that evolves.”

With four players shut down, including the reigning national player of the year, it is not wonder why Auriemma called the last few days “probably as difficult as any days that I can remember” for the program.

“These things happen,” Auriemma said. “When you lose somebody like Paige, but if you have Nika available, it takes some of the sting off. If you have Azzi available, it take some of the sting off. But when you throw in all three of them, that’s a real gut punch.”

UConn doesn’t have much time to figure out how to function without Bueckers and Mühl, who started half the season last year and would’ve backed up Bueckers if healthy. The Huskies travel to Atlanta Wednesday ahead of their Thursday matchup against Georgia Tech, then have to face a similarly depleted UCLA team Saturday in the Never Forget Tribute Classic.

“We’ve just got to weather the storm,” Auriemma said. “It’s just going to be a long storm.”

The Huskies got their first taste of life with Bueckers in Tuesday’s practice.

“It was a little bit of a struggle, just trying to adjust to everything,” Westbrook said. “But once we get into the swing of things we have no choice but to adapt. We have no other choice. Missing Azzi [Fudd] was hard, now missing Paige is going to be really difficult for us. But we’re going to be just fine, it’s something we have to do, we have no choice.”

UConn’s three seniors (Williams, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa) will no doubt be tasked to step up. But even with those three holding things down, there’s no doubt UConn will look different.

Westbrook said players talked over the situation after Tuesday’s practice, stressing that everyone needed to contribute a little more for the team to get through the next couple weeks.

Westbrook’s been sure to be in Bueckers’ ear given her previous experience dealing with a knee issue that sidelined her.

“She’s gonna struggle. I went through a year and a half of it,” Westbrook said. “She’s a little bit hard headed, she’s stubborn. ‘Oh, I can’t do it.’ And I’m telling her, ‘You are sitting out, you have no choice.’ ... The big goal is the national championship. Everyone knows what you bring to the table. We’ll be here when you get back.”

Auriemma added that there may be “more of a reliance” to get their post players involved in their offense, which has come slowly but surely through six games. Nelson-Ododa is coming off her first double-double of the season on Sunday against Notre Dame, while sophomore Aaliyah Edwards and graduate transfer Dorka Juhász had good outings against Seton Hall two days before.

“There won’t be as much creativity and as much freedom and fluidness that Paige gives us, so our execution is going to have to be even more precise,” Auriemma said. Even with Bueckers on the court, the Huskies have struggled with turnovers this season, committing a season-high 21 against Notre Dame.

Auriemma’s teams have seen devastating injuries before — he thinks back to losing Shea Ralph to a ACL tear in the 1997 NCAA Tournament and how his team “reacted horribly to that. They actually reacted as if someone had passed away, and it cost us... we could’ve won, had we handled it differently.” A few seasons later, he said his team handled it “exceptionally” better when it lost both Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova.

How will this season’s team handle this difficult stretch? “I think it depends on the maturity of players, their level of confidence, they’re accepting of a challenge,” Auriemma said.

And that test begins Thursday.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com. Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com.

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