Shorthanded UConn survives Princeton, avoids consecutive losses after Nika Mühl exits with injury

Connecticut avoided consecutive losses by squashing a late comeback bid from Princeton to win, 69-64, at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, on Thursday night. But, for a second consecutive game, the No. 6 Huskies endured yet another in-game injury to a starter when point guard Nika Mühl left the game in the third quarter.

After trailing by double digits much of the game, the Tigers pulled within two on free throws in the final minute. UConn’s Aubrey Griffin, who had a career night with 29 points on 11-of-11 shooting with 10 rebounds, answered with an and-1 opportunity, but missed the free throw, and Princeton came back within two on a deep jumper by Madison St. Rose.

Inês Bettencourt crept the lead to three by hitting 1-of-2 free-throw attempts after All-Ivy guard Julia Cunningham committed a fifth foul. The defense shut down Princeton on the arc and forced a turnover on an ensuing inbound play to protect the win.

UConn's last back-to-back losses came in March 1993, a stretch that now extends to 1,067 games. The Huskies are playing a tough schedule that continues with No. 20 Maryland on Sunday. The Terrapins avoided their own upset on Thursday with a game-winning 3-pointer.

The loss of Mühl is the most concerning aspect for UConn. Lou Lopez Senechal, who scored 18 points, might also have an injury. She sat the final 4:19 and reportedly was seen limping in her final minutes on the court. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said after the game she has been dealing with a strained foot and tweaked it today, but says "she's fine."

There were eight available UConn players on Thursday and it dropped to seven after Mühl's exit. Further trouble bubbled up when Caroline Ducharme drew her fourth foul late in the third.

The Huskies came into the season without 2021 National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers (out with torn ACL) and top-ranked freshman Ice Brady (dislocated patella). Fifth-year graduate forward Dorka Juhász has missed the last five games with a broken thumb. And Azzi Fudd, an early contender for the 2023 player of the year award, is out for three to six weeks after a knee injury against Notre Dame on Sunday.

UConn's Mühl leaves vs. Princeton

UConn guard Nika Muhl with the ball against Princeton in the first half at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 8, 2022. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)
UConn guard Nika Muhl with the ball against Princeton in the first half at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 8, 2022. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

Mühl hit her head hard on Aaliyah Edwards' knee as she was falling backward into the paint at the 7:07 mark of the third quarter. She might have also taken an inadvertent elbow near her face while attempting to take a charge against Kaitlyn Chen.

She was seen being attended to on the court by trainers as she held her head and was helped off to the bench by Bueckers, with Juhász trailing them nearby. It comes days after Fudd injured her knee when Edwards fell into it off a screen. UConn did not update her status during the game, but Auriemma told reporters Mühl said she felt fine in the locker room and the team will know more on Friday.

The junior guard from Croatia is having a career season stepping in for Bueckers at point guard. Her 10.1 assists per game are best in Division I and she broke Bueckers' single-game record for assists against NC State last month. She had four consecutive games of double-digit assists to become the only UConn player to do so. Her 11 points against Notre Dame were a season high and she was expected to take more of a scoring load with Fudd out.

How UConn won

The Huskies used defense to fuel a strong start, 21-14, through the first quarter and rode it out through the second to a 32-20 lead at the break. They controlled the paint and hit 48% of their shots while the defense forced Princeton into a 8-for-32 half. The Tigers were 2-of-13 from 3-point range.

Auriemma said at halftime the Huskies would need to find their offensive rhythm, which will be a more major concern against Maryland. That became more difficult with their leader out, as did the defensive effort that begins with Mühl. Princeton trailed by low double digits through the third, but cut it to eight with 5:56 remaining with three layups off turnovers in a span of less than two minutes.

UConn hit 59.1% of its shots and half of its 12 3-point attempts. Lopez Senechal was 4-of-6 from the 3-point line and Griffin hit both of her attempts. The Huskies won the boards, 35-29, and paint points, 34-20, but will need to clean up the turnovers and at the free-throw line (11-of-17).

They committed 27 turnovers, more than their previous season high of 17 against Northeastern to open the season, and the Tigers scored 28 points off of them. The messy play helped the Tigers back into the game since they were 33.8% from the floor, and 28% from 3.

Auriemma remains undefeated, at 77-0, against former players and assistants. Princeton head coach Carla Berube was a part of UConn's 1995 national championship team that went 35-0. She scored 1,381 points during in her collegiate career, during which the team went 132-8 (.942) over four years.

The last time UConn lost to an Ivy League school was in 1983.