What UConn women’s basketball forward Aubrey Griffin learned from missing season: ‘I’ll be better’

Photo of Paul Doyle

WEST HARTFORD — The texting was steady, the FaceTime calls came from the locker room as the UConn women’s basketball team continually reached out to their injured teammate.

Aubrey Griffin was home in Ossining, N.Y. recovering from back surgery. Her team was in the middle of its season, wading through an injury-plagued year that would ultimately end with a Final Four appearance.

Griffin, though, was never far from their collective thoughts.

“They didn’t want me to feel like I was being left out,” Griffin said last week at Geno Auriemma’s charity golf tournament at the Hartford Golf Club.

Griffin missed the entire season, navigating ankle and back injuries in preseason camp before ultimately undergoing a discectomy on Jan. 10. She was bed-ridden for a few weeks and took classes remotely before returning to campus.

When she was back in March, senior Evina Westbrook said Griffin brought a “sense of happiness” to the team.

That hasn’t changed. As she trains with her team this summer and prepares for a return to the court, Griffin and her teammates are appreciative.

“Especially because she wasn’t with us most of the time, traveling and stuff, we really missed her,” guard Nika Mühl said. “But we’re so glad that she’s back, seeing her progress and seeing her do stuff in practice that three months ago we would never think she could do. It’s really great to see.”

Griffin is jogging, jumping, and conditioning at UConn, with her basketball activity limited to some light shooting and work around the rim. There’s no timeline for her full return, but Griffin said her goal is to be cleared for practice when the team returns to campus for preseason in the fall.

After a season of watching, what will she bring to UConn? Griffin said she’ll be a different player.

“I think I’ll be better coming back,” she said. “Just being able to watch and learn stuff from the side, like the plays and just understanding basketball better. It has helped my IQ.”

A 6-foot-1 forward, Griffin averaged 6.4 points and 5.4 rebounds as a freshman before averaging 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds as a sophomore, starting five games.

Athletic and physical, Griffin spent two seasons as a valuable reserve who showed flashes of being more — perhaps a starter, perhaps a player garnering more minutes. And as UConn saw one player after another miss games with injuries last season, Griffin’s absence was felt.

The Huskies could have used an experienced frontcourt player.

“I think that’s one of the most underrated parts of the season last year, is how much we missed her,” Paige Bueckers said. “Just everything that she does for us, offensively, defensively. She’s got a guard body but she plays like a post. I think obviously having her back will be a huge key for our success this year. And I’m excited for her.”

Griffin missed a season in high school after having ACL surgery. That experience, she said, helped prepare her mentally for what she faced last season. “I kind of knew how it was going to go and what I needed to do to keep my mind right,” she said.

Surgery was considered a last resort, but Griffin understood the severity of her injury before the diagnosis.

“I couldn't even bend down to tie my shoe,” Griffin said.

Rehab began weeks after surgery.

“It was really tough in the beginning because ... I obviously wanted to play and I wanted to be there with my team and I wanted to be able to practice and stuff so it was definitely hard just being not able to do anything,” Griffin said.

She did offer critiques to her teammates based on viewing games on TV. When she returned to campus, she was on the bench as another set of eyes — observing from the sideline, she said, and learning, seeing the game from another angle.

In the fall, Griffin will be a redshirt junior and one of the more experienced players on the roster. UConn returns a strong core: Bueckers and Azzi Fudd in the backcourt, Dorka Juhász and Aaliyah Edwards up front, Caroline Ducharme on the wing, Mühl off the bench as a defensive stopper.

But Griffin is the wild card. If healthy, she could be a key contributor to a team with national title aspirations.

“I’m just looking forward to getting back out there with my team,” Griffin said. “The hardest part for me was being away from them.”

One thing that kept her motivated? Watching her brother AJ excel during his freshman season at Duke.

AJ Griffin, a 6-6 guard, was taked with the 16th pick in last week’s NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Adrian Griffin, father of AJ and Aubrey, spent 11 years in the NBA, although he took a different path — he spent three seasons with the CBA’s Hartford-based Connecticut Pride before earning a spot with the Celtics in 1999.

Adrian, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, played four years at Seton Hall. UConn coach Dan Hurley was a teammate.

His son’s path to a professional career started with just one season at Duke. Now he’s off to the NBA, chasing “his dream,” Aubrey said.

Bedridden for part of the winter, Aubrey saw lots of her brother’s games. It only fueled her desire to get back on the court.

“Yeah, it made me want to play too,” she said. “But I’m also glad I got to see him in his college career.”

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com