Aubrey Griffin overcomes ‘hard battle’ with confidence to lead UConn women’s basketball into NCAA tourney

STORRS — This time last year, UConn women's basketball redshirt junior Aubrey Griffin was learning how to walk without a cane.

Instead of preparing for the biggest games of the season alongside her teammates, she was re-learning one of life's most basic skills.

A preseason ankle injury on top of back surgery kept Griffin sidelined all last year.

Yet a year later, the 6-foot-1 New Yorker is back and playing better than ever.

Her practice and workout routines have shifted to allow room for continued rehab while her role on the court has only increased. Griffin has gone from an off-the-bench spark to an every-game starter and one of the Huskies' most dangerous defenders.

And through it all, Griffin has found new self-confidence that's enabled her to play her best basketball while averaging career highs across the stat sheet. When UConn opens the 2023 NCAA Tournament Saturday against Vermont, Griffin is not only expected to be healthy and play but she'll be a key piece in the Huskies' postseason run.

"She impacts the game at every level and hopefully, her confidence level is really high right now," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after UConn's win in the Big East Tournament semifinals. "... I think her mind is in the right place right now. If we can get that from her, the rest of this tournament and beyond, we're a completely different team, completely different."

When UConn point guard Nika Mühl first practiced with Griffin during her freshman year, she could immediately sense Griffin's athleticism and strength under the basket. But Mühl could also see Griffin didn't always believe in herself — especially shooting. Being two of UConn's most inconsistent shooters that season, they often got paired up under a basket to take turns shooting.

"Coach always made me and her shoot on purpose because we were missing all the shots," Mühl said. "We just weren't good shooters. I remember me and her would always, you know, just look like we're in such panic. You know, we're so scared."

In her sophomore season, Griffin got five starts and averaged 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, yet it was during a game that year that she initially injured her back.

She was able to play out the rest of the season, but the pain never really went away.

It didn't help that she suffered a preseason ankle injury heading into last season which kept her sidelined for UConn's first few games. By December 2021, Griffin's back pain had gotten so bad she could hardly bend down or walk.

She elected to have season-ending back surgery in January 2022, ending her junior year without playing in a single game.

Rehab for her back was challenging. Sure Griffin had gone through ACL surgery and rehab in high school, but this was different. She spent the first weeks stuck in bed unable to move. 

On Jan. 23, she surprised the Huskies and walked, with a cane, into their locker room before their game at St. John's in Queens. During the game, there were moments she had to leave the court and find a spot to lie down before gaining enough strength to stand up again.

Griffin worked her way back and was with the team throughout its NCAA Tournament run. By the time the Huskies met South Carolina in the last game of the season, she had moved on from the cane and was walking on her own power.

She stayed in Storrs the whole summer to focus on her recovery. By the end of June, she was cleared for a full individual workout.

Griffin was nervous about how her game would be affected after back surgery. But the minute she stepped back on the court, she knew she was going to be OK.

"I had some doubts in the beginning, but that all went away, as soon as I attacked rehab," Griffin said. "I was getting acclimated again and had my first individual (workout) and stuff like that. I knew I was going to come back stronger and a better player."

After 587 days, Griffin scored 13 points (on 6 of 7 shooting with five rebounds along with two steals in her first game back in UConn's season opener against Northeastern.

Two games later, she got her first start of the season against NC State. With Dorka Juhász out with a broken thumb, the Huskies needed another forward to step up. 

Griffin delivered. She finished with 16 points, six rebounds, two assists and a career-high six steals. It was during that game, she says, that she felt like her old self.

"I had made this one play where I stole the ball and then came back and stole it again twice," Griffin said beaming. "I'm like, 'Yeah, the old Aubrey would have done that too.' Like, I know that I'm back and I'm better."

Against Princeton on Dec. 8, Griffin scored a career-high 29 points making all 11 of her shots, including going 2 of 2 from deep (a career-high). The only shot she missed was in the game's final quarter from the free throw line (where she finished 5 of 6). Her 11 for 11 night tied Husky great Rebecca Lobo (1994) for the most straight-made field goals in a single game in UConn history.

While her skills on the court improved, Griffin's battle with self-confidence was still ongoing. 

It would take her a minute to shake off a bad shot and move on. She'd get in her head after making a mistake and have trouble re-focusing. Instead of taking her own shot, she'd pass to a teammate.

"When I have confidence, I’m on, you know, I'm impacting the floor on both ends and when I don't have that confidence, you see another player," she said.

Four days before the Princeton game, Griffin was 1 of 12 from the floor against Notre Dame. It was almost night and day.

"She's very, very talented and I think the only person that can stop Aubrey is herself, you know, her confidence," Juhász said.

Griffin knew it was a problem. She's known since high school when her coach would have to whisper words of encouragement in her ear before she checked into a game to give her even just an extra ounce of confidence.

She knew she was capable of anything she set her mind to. She was the most dominant and athletic player on her high school team in Ossining, N.Y. She was a McDonald's All-American. She had basketball and athletics in her blood with her whole family excelling in sports — father Adrian played 10 years in the NBA, mother Audrey was an All-American track athlete at Seton  Hall, brother AJ played at Duke and is a rookie on the Atlanta Hawks.

And, most importantly, she was a Husky and therefore she knew she deserved the stage.

"It was a hard battle," she said. "I came a long way from not having it in previous years but like this year, I was like, 'I put in all this work like I should have confidence.' I'm always in the gym, always putting up extra shots so like, of course, I should have confidence there's no reason why I shouldn't."

Griffin's first 40-minute game of her career came on Feb. 5 against South Carolina. She's recorded four double-doubles this season and leads UConn in steals with 48. She's second on the team with a 54.2 field-goal percentage and with 78 offensive boards. After averaging less than seven points a game during her freshman and sophomore seasons, Griffin is now averaging 12.1.

She's arguably the most athletic Husky this season and drives to the basket without fear while also drawing fouls. She's quick and easily pokes out loose balls to only sprint them back upcourt for the steal-and-score.

"Oh my God, she's the MVP of this team in my opinion, because she is so underrated," Mühl said. "She does so much for us that is not even seen on the stat sheet. I got defensive player of the year; I don't know why I got it. I think Aubrey should have gotten it. She's been guarding the best players all season coming off of a back surgery. I mean, she's been locking them all out. So I feel like she's a great defensive beast for us."

Griffin was a difference-maker in UConn's 81-52 win over Marquette in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. She went 4 of 4 from the floor for 11 points with seven rebounds on top of four assists and four steals.

However, the redshirt junior still isn't out of the clear with her back surgery recovery.

Because of the complicatedness of back injuries, Griffin continues to do rehab throughout the season. She spends days in the pool working out and strengthening her mobility. During pregame warm-ups, she can be seen on the court using a roller to loosen her back and core muscles while the other players do their normal routine.

During the first half of UConn's Big East Tournament championship game against Villanova she felt herself turn the wrong way and started to feel back spasms. While back spasms are common in back surgery recovery, Griffin said she hadn't experienced them until then.

She took some medicine and did some stretching during halftime but still felt pain. As a precaution, Auriemma sat her for the game's final 20 minutes. 

About a week afterward, Auriemma said Griffin has mostly focused on rehab during practice days. "In terms of how much practice, hasn't been a lot. Very, very little," he said. On Sunday, he said was hopeful she would be able to do more on Monday.

The Huskies will have 11 days off from games between the Big East Tournament championship and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Both Auriemma and Griffin say the forward will be ready come Saturday.

"I’m doing better, just taking precaution," Griffin said. "I’ll be ready."   @maggie_vanoni