UConn returning with limited roster: Mühl restricted, DeBerry out, Griffin likely lost for season

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It’s been an anything-but-easy start to 2022 for UConn.

Conference-wide COVID-19 issues, ongoing team injuries and canceled games have derailed the Huskies for the past two weeks.

While UConn will make its return to the court Sunday, hosting Creighton at Gampel Pavilion (1 p.m.), the team will have an even shorter bench than before the holiday break with just seven available players.

“When we left after our game on (Dec. 19), we thought we would be able to get back to practice on the 26th and that obviously didn’t happen the way we expected it to be,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma told reporters over Zoom on Friday.“It’s a really challenging situation and then to not be able to play for 20 days or whatever it is, you’re going into Sunday’s game almost like it’s the beginning of the season. Almost like it’s the first game of the year, that’s about what it feels like for us right now.”

Since Paige Bueckers fell to the floor with a knee injury in the final minute of UConn’s win over Notre Dame on Dec. 5, the Huskies have been playing with fewer than 10 players — including two games with just eight available bodies.

UConn’s injured list included Nika Mühl (foot), Azzi Fudd (foot), Bueckers (tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus), and Aubrey Griffin (back).

The team returned to Storrs following the holiday break and was hit with COVID. Auriemma said four players tested positive, which forced a shutdown of the program.

Auriemma said the players who had the virus all had “nil” symptoms: “Probably under normal circumstances they would have been playing.”

UConn canceled three straight games and allowed those who could to practice, even if it meant running drills for just five players as they waited for others to feel better and get out of quarantine.

It was just this week when the team was able to practice with seven players.

“It’s been frustrating, and it sucks just for games getting canceled and obviously not being able to play,” senior Evina Westbrook said Friday. “Just practice, practice, practice, and I think we’re just ready to play somebody else besides ourselves and our practice guys.”

Auriemma said Mühl was back to practice this week and would play limited minutes (15) on Sunday. The sophomore from Croatia last played Dec. 5 and is averaging 2.0 points in 10.5 minutes in six games so far this season.

With Bueckers in the midst of rehabbing and recovering from her December surgery (expected to return mid-to-late February) and Fudd still out (Auriemma said the freshman will likely return to practice next week), the coach will be looking for Mühl to take control of ball-handling responsibilities during the time she’s in.

“One of the things I worry about with Nika is that, going back to last season, she’s had a history of injuries. She struggled with that foot injury last season and it really hurt our team,” he said. “She has an infectious quality about her, an energy about her, and the energy level that she brings is somewhat unique. You don’t have a lot of players like her. So having her in the lineup, having her available to play, I really think that’s gonna be one of the contributing factors as to how we can keep winning between now and when we get our whole team back.”

While getting Mühl back is a plus for UConn, Auriemma said freshman Amari DeBerry will not be ready for Sunday’s game due to COVID and other unspecified issues. Piath Gabriel was not among the players listed to be available for Sunday’s game — UConn did not provide a reason — giving the Huskies just seven players in their first game in three weeks.

Besides injuries, UConn has seen two players — Saylor Poffenbarger and Mir McLean — transfer since the start of the season. The roster that looked so deep before the season has been depleted.

“This hurts. It really does,” Westbrook said. “Just to have certain people out that we didn’t think were gonna be out. Obviously coming into the season you think you’re gonna have all 14 of us. Then we have transfers, injuries, whatever the case may be. It’s the way life is. It’s filled with ups and downs. Things that are gonna happen that you never could have thought of that were gonna happen. And when it rains, it pours. ... It’s been hard for all of us. Obviously, it’s hard for the people who can’t physically play on the court, but it’s hard for the people who can as well.”

In terms of the team’s more severely injured players, there’s good news and bad news.

Bad news: Auriemma said Griffin isn’t likely to play this season due to an ongoing disc injury in her back that now may need surgery. The junior’s back injury is ongoing from last season.

“With Aubrey, we’re waiting to hear,” Auriemma said. “She’s been dealing with a disc injury in her back and there’s a good possibility that she’s going to need surgery on that, and I don’t envision her being back for the rest of the season.”

Good news: Bueckers is continuing to do well in rehab. Last year’s national player of the year remains a vocal presence during the team’s practices and huddles.

“I think her rehab has been going well,” Auriemma said. “She feels good. She looks good. She’s obviously, as you can imagine, disappointed that she’s gonna miss all this time. She’s probably the only one happy that those games were all postponed. … It’s just time now. It’s just putting the work in and time and letting mother nature take its course.”

The Huskies have two losses in their last three games. With all the time removed from the court and now an even smaller bench, the team will look to start 2022 on the right path come Sunday when it hosts the Bluejays.

“Right now we’re just happy there’s a game Sunday,” Auriemma said. “We’re hopeful that nothing happens between now and Sunday and we can play in that game. And then we have a game Wednesday and right now, you’re just thinking, ‘We play Sunday and it’s hope we play Wednesday.’”

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com