UConn freshmen Ashlynn Shade, KK Arnold making a name for themselves in the NCAA Tournament

UConn guards KK Arnold, left, and Paige Bueckers, right, celebrate during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgetown in the finals of the Big East Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 11, 2024, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

By PAT EATON-ROBB AP Sports Writer

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — UConn freshmen guards Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold haven’t received the accolades given to some of their peers across the country, but the pair have had a big impact for their injury-riddled team in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Shade, a sharpshooter from Indiana, has put up 45 points for the No. 3 seeded Huskies in their first two tournament games, while Arnold, a playmaker and lockdown defender from Wisconsin, hit the key 3-pointer that propelled Connecticut to its 72-64 win over Syracuse on Monday night.

Neither was supposed to be in this situation.

Unlike first-year stars such as Southern California’s JuJu Watkins and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo, Connecticut’s freshmen were expected to ease their way into playing time this season. Instead, injuries that have sidelined six Huskies, including starting guards Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme, have forced Arnold and Shade into the lineup.

Each has started 30 of 36 games for the Huskies (31-5) going into Saturday’s Sweet 16 game against No. 7 seed Duke in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s basically three seniors and all freshmen, so they have no choice but to step up to the plate and perform and contribute to winning and not be fazed by the stakes or the environment or anything like that – and they do it every time,” UConn All-American Paige Bueckers said.

Shade has become UConn’s third scoring option behind Bueckers and senior post Aaliyah Edwards. She is averaging 12.4 points per game, and just under 15 points in the postseason, mostly on kick-outs for corner 3-pointers.

The 5-foot-9 Arnold, who is averaging 8.8 points, has joined senior Nika Muhl as the Huskies’ top ball handlers, allowing the 6-foot Bueckers more freedom to roam and move to a forward position, especially in the team’s patch-work defense.

“The one thing that coach tells me to do is to come in there with confidence and figure out the stuff you can do with confidence,” Arnold said. ” There is a little pressure. I just embrace it and I am very excited for these opportunities.”

Coach Geno Auriemma credits Bueckers and the other upperclassmen with mentoring the freshmen.

With UConn ahead by just one possession with 28 seconds left Monday, Arnold drained a 3-pointer from the left wing to help seal the victory. The pass came from Bueckers, who was surrounded by three defenders.

“KK’s thinking, ‘Man, the best player just passed it to me at crunch time,'” Auriemma said. “That’s just a huge confidence-builder, you know?”

Shade, who had five three pointers on Monday after putting up a career-high 26 points in an opening-round win over Jackson State, said playing in these big games is the reason she chose to come to UConn. It also helps to have someone like Arnold to share the highs and lows with.

“We have grown with each other a lot this year and we have matured with each other,” she said.

Not that it’s been an easy ride. After that win Saturday, the players all donned custom T-shirts to celebrate Auriemma’s 70th birthday. Shade’s had a photo of a young Auriemma screaming in frustration.

“I think this shirt sums up coach’s relationship with me,” she joked. “This is what he looks like most of the time on the court. But when he yells at me, I’m just starting to translate that into, ‘I love you’ instead of, ‘You suck.’ So when he goes, ‘You suck,’ I’m just like, ‘Aw, love you, too.'”

Auriemma shot back, “You need a new translator.”


AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness