Difference for UConn women's basketball team in win over Texas? Azzi Fudd's 'NBA performance'

Photo of Mike Anthony

STORRS — The dagger, as it often will, came from the best player on the court and maybe, in this case, from the best player in the country.  

Azzi Fudd knocked down a 3-pointer from the right with just under two minutes remaining Monday night, essentially sealing the fifth-ranked UConn women’s basketball team’s 83-76 victory over No. 3 Texas.  

Before and after that shot, Gampel Pavilion vibrated in the wake of a couple resounding statements — one from a team making the most of its first high-profile challenge, one from a player entering another type of basketball conversation.

A conversation reserved for a select few.

Fudd finished with a career-high 32 points, scoring 22 in the second half, 17 in the fourth quarter. She made 13 of 21 shots, 4 of 7 3’s, including the one to push the Huskies’ lead back into double digits, the final release of any remaining pressure.

Afterward, Texas coach Vic Shaefer and UConn coach Geno Auriemma, with a combined 80 years or so in their profession, were basically left to shake their heads. Because what Fudd did down the stretch of Monday’s game isn’t something seen so often, no matter how long one coaches.

“If anybody had any doubts, she became a first-team All-American,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know how many players are capable of doing what she did. That was like an NBA performance, really.”

Auriemma revisited that thought a moment player.

“It was like an NBA game where all of a sudden one player starts getting off and the basket looks like a swimming pool, and keeps going off and just keeps going, keeps going, keeps going,” he said. “I don't know that it’ll be like that like that every game but it takes a special kind of person to be able to handle that knowing that we're coming to you that often and we need you to make those. She’s a special player. She has skills that the average player doesn't have. And she put them on display.”

Fudd owned the game, owned the night, and is increasingly taking ownership of the highest praise and fame in the sport one drive, 3-pointer or pull-up jumper at a time. She made 6 of 8 shots in the fourth quarter, one of those get-out-of-my way segments that the best players in the sport tend to carve out.

If there was any question about what type of go-to player the Huskies were left with after Paige Bueckers went down with a knee injury that will cost her the season, that has been answered, too. Fudd has 58 points in two games, having torn apart the easiest (Northeastern) and most difficult (Texas) competition.

The season is so young but not without a glimpse of what is possible. Texas was without injured guard Rori Harmon but UConn — aggressive and frenetic, but composed and versatile — won rather comfortably. Pulling away required, in large part, Fudd’s brilliance. But the stage for that spotlight-worthy act was established by a wave of players doing their part early.

Aubrey Griffin, who missed last season with a back injury, is a breath of fresh air. She shot out of a cannon, scored five consecutive points off the bench and finished with 14. Lou Lopez Sénéchal, having been a prolific scorer at Fairfield, had 12 points. She is clearly an elite player, at any level. Nika Mühl is still on track to be forever remembered as one of the most annoying defensive players in program history, but she had nine assists Monday and has supporting all that comes naturally to her with a developing maturity.

UConn, overall, looked well put-together, with options, a certain approach, an air of confidence. The performance was, really, a this-is-what-we-have game. There was not, with Bueckers in street clothes, a we’re-hoping-to-be-OK vibe. The Huskies did not, in any stretch, look like a team that absolutely, positively will need Fudd to always carry or pull them along.

But she sure can rise up like few, if any, players in the nation. She sure does seem destined for sustained greatness after only being able to offer a partial view of her gifts during an injury-plagued freshman season.

“There’s not enough Tylenol for me to take after watching that,” Schaefer said. “She's open when she's not, if that makes sense.” 

Fudd has the green light any time she catches the ball from, say, 30 feet and in. Teams will go to great lengths to limit her looks from the perimeter, which is where she did most of her damage last season.

But Fudd is covering more ground on the court than any teammate, doing more than shooting over defenders, squeezing the free release of her effortless jumper into the smallest of windows. She’s handling the ball, bringing it up court. She’s driving to the basket, through the lane, along the baseline. Even when teams might think they have played her perfectly both away from the basket and near it, she stops on a dime for the coolest pull-up UConn jumper since Kemba Walker.

“Because she’s such a good 3-point shooter, it’s almost imperative that she has a great mid-range game,” Auriemma said. “Because if you don't, people just run you off the line and then you have nothing. So when you're playing against her you’ve got to make a decision. What do I want to give up? Mostly it's going to be, ‘I don't want to give up the 3’s.’ … But the pull-ups are what really kill teams because teams are willing to live with that shot. But not if you make seven or eight in a row. They’re still killers. She's a complete basketball player.”

And if this isn’t a complete team — is there one in November? — it certainly has the look of one that does not have to concede any game, against any opponent.

The tests keep coming. UConn has NC State on Sunday. The Huskies have Duke and Iowa or Oregon and Notre Dame and Maryland and Florida State — all before Christmas.

They also have a truly great scoring guard with a capable supporting cast. This was, until August, going to be the year of Bueckers and Fudd, of Paige and Azzi. It is not. But it might be another year where UConn can think on any night that it has the best player on the court and the best team in the building.

“It ain't no different than any year around here,”  Schaefer said.

It's unique in that yet Fudd, like Bueckers and so many others before her, is the latest player to emerge as the front of the production. She and her team answered some important questions Monday night.  

“There's a lot on her,” Auriemma said. “I think she was a little bit naive at the beginning of season when I said, I know you expected to play with Paige and it didn't happen much last year. Now here it is and you’re not going play with her at all. So you have to be a little bit of you and a little bit of her. She goes, ‘That's a lot.’ She said, ‘But it's not something I can’t handle.’ Well, she's starting to find out now that it's going to be a bitch to handle that. But if you're as good as she is, you live for those moments.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHp-[earst