UConn's Azzi Fudd scores 10 in return after missing 14 games

UConn women's basketball star guard Azzi Fudd made her return from a right knee injury in the Huskies' 69-39 Big East tournament quarterfinal win over Georgetown Saturday, scoring 10 points in 17 minutes in the process.

Prior to missing the past 14 games, the 5-foot-11 sharpshooting guard averaged 17.9 points per game on 53.4% shooting from the field and 43.4% from 3 in nine appearances this season. She initially hurt her knee in early December, which sidelined her for eight games, before returning on Jan. 11 versus St. John's. Four days later, she reinjured it against the Hoyas, forcing her to sit out for the remainder of the regular season.

"This was always my goal, was to come back for tournament time," Fudd said. "So I've been working up to it this last week in individuals, practice. I was mentally prepared, and then waking up this morning, I was very excited."

Fudd, the former No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2021, also finished with four assists and two rebounds off the bench. The No. 9 Huskies have been hampered by injuries all season, with 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers (ACL tear) and freshman Ice Brady (dislocated patella) being ruled out for the season before it even started. Sophomore Caroline Ducharme also missed extended time with a concussion, while graduate student Dorka Juhász broke her thumb earlier in the season and then this past week missed UConn's regular-season finale versus Xavier with a sprained ankle.

With Juhász and Fudd available to start the Big East tournament, Saturday marked the second game all season in which the Huskies had all 10 players who were able to play this season available to take the floor, with the last time coming Nov. 14 versus Texas. It was short-lived, though, after Ducharme went down with an apparent head injury late in the first half and did not return. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said postgame that she will be evaluated prior to the Huskies' semifinal game on Sunday, but that the sophomore wants to play and they are "going under the assumption that she will unless we find something to the contrary."

The Huskies largely prevailed without Fudd this winter, even taking undefeated defending champion South Carolina down to the wire in early February, but have struggled since then: They dropped consecutive games for the first time since March 1993, suffered multiple losses to unranked conference opponents for the first time since 2003-04 and experienced a 10-game stretch where all their games were decided by 10 points or fewer. Auriemma said after his team barely eked by Xavier on Monday that if his squad continued to play this way and didn't add anyone back, the Huskies probably wouldn't make the Final Four.

A healthy Fudd, who was thought to be an early national player of the year candidate prior to her December injury, undoubtedly gives the Huskies a huge boost in their efforts to get back on track and advance to a 15th consecutive Final Four. UConn is also looking to avenge its loss in the 2022 national championship game to South Carolina and take home its 12th national title, which would be its first since 2016.

"I don't know that anybody on our team can have the similar impact that she can," Auriemma said of Fudd. "The impact that she's going to have on the team, you can't calculate the meaning of that because it's just everything ... [plus] the confidence that the rest of the team gets knowing that she's out there."

"When you have Azzi," Georgetown coach James Howard added, "you're talking about a Final Four-type of team now."

Notably, Fudd said she "[felt] better now than I did last time we played [Georgetown]" in mid-January, when she reinjured her knee. "All around, just my knee, my confidence, and just playing with my team," Fudd said. "The last few days in practice felt really good, our chemistry, our flow, everything. It just felt like everything was clicking."

It took some time for Fudd to find the back of the net Saturday, but in the second half she hit two consecutive tries from beyond the arc before sitting the entire fourth quarter with UConn up big. The sophomore finished 3-for-9 from the field (2-for-6 from 3) as well as 2-for-2 from the free throw line. Whether it was due to Fudd's return, hitting the reset button come postseason play, or both, the Huskies looked the best they have in some time, with their defense suffocating the Hoyas and their offense playing with more pace than it's managed to recently.

UConn next prepares for a semifinal matchup Sunday against 5-seed Marquette or 4-seed St. John's, both of which the Huskies lost to last month.

"I think having Azzi, and hopefully having Caroline, gives us our best chance to go far, not just in this tournament but the next one," Auriemma said.