BRIDGEPORT — Minutes after the UConn women’s basketball team completed an exhausting double-overtime victory over NC State in the regional final, the players circled Dorka Juhász as they celebrated at midcourt.
Juhász, her injured left arm in a sling, shared tears and smiles with her teammates. They hugged her, they placed a “Final Four” hat on her head, they made her the center of their post-game party.
Earlier in the night, the players were visibly shaken when Juhász fell to the court after driving to basket. She landed on her left arm, suffering a gruesome injury.
The crowd at Total Mortgage Arena fell silent. Juhász rolled on her back in pain while teammates consoled her and immediately signaled for a trainer.
The last player to retreat to the bench was senior Evina Westbrook, wiping tears as she sat among her teammates. “They were pretty shook up about it,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was one of those that you’ve seen it before on TV, and it’s not pretty. And they had a chance to see it up close. I didn’t, but they did. So they were pretty shook up about it. You could see it in their faces.”
Auriemma described the injury as a fracture and dislocation. UConn was leading NC State 25-18 when Juhász went down with 6:19 left in the first half. She was helped off the court and was in visible pain as she walked to the locker room.
UConn was up 34-28 at halftime and Juhász returned to the bench in the third quarter. She witnessed an epic game, as Paige Bueckers carried the Huskies with 27 points — including eight in the second overtime.
The Huskies are going to Minnesota for the program’s 14th consecutive Final Four. But Juhász, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, won’t be playing.
After playing just three minutes in a Sweet 16 win over Indiana Saturday, Juhász was active and producing when she entered the game Monday. She had two points and two rebounds in three minutes, and was a a defensive force as UConn was a plus-five with her on the court.
“She didn’t play great the other night and hardly played at all, and the (three) minutes that she got in there today, she was the biggest factor in the game,” Auriemma said. “She had an impact on every defensive possession, every rebound possession, every offensive possession. So for that to happen at that moment … it’s the reason why the kid came here.”
Juhász averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 31 games — including 15 starts — before Monday. Auriemma has raved about her work ethic and she has emerged as a popular figure among her teammates.
This is also her first experience in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s always hard to see a teammate go down like that, especially in the middle of the game,” senior Christyn Williams said. “But you know, Coach got us together and basically just told us the biggest thing we could do for her was win the game and win it for her. I guess that was just our mentality for the rest of the game.
“It was so good to see her after the game. She had a sling on, so that was really unfortunate, but we just embraced her and told her that we have her back no matter what. We were just really excited that we could get this win for her.”
UConn has endured a season of injuries and illnesses. Eight of the team’s 12 players have missed at least two games and only two — Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards — have played in every game.
So this is a team accustomed to navigating adversity.
“I feel like the way our season has gone all year, we were well prepared for this game and for something like that to happen,” Williams said. “A lot of us have gone down at one point or another in the season, so we’ve kind of learned how to sub in and just keep rolling with the punches. That’s exactly what happened today. Yeah, we always find a way to get it done.”
Said freshman Azzi Fudd, “We knew that we were built for this moment. We went through everything this season to be prepared for this, and I think that’s what we did, we just stayed together and held our composure.”
Juhász, a native of Hungary, is eligible to return next season. Auriemma has said she told him that she intends to come back.
For the near term, her absence will be felt. UConn will play defending national champion Stanford Friday night and Auriemma’s bench will be shorter.
After losing to Arizona in the national semifinal last year, Auriemma viewed Juhász as perhaps the missing piece.
“You watch Dorka practice for a long time, I said she could be the difference that gets us over that hump from last year, where we needed one more big body to do some things,” he said. “Unfortunately she’s not going to get the opportunity to do that.”
The injury, though, did serve as a reminder that Auriemma and UConn should relish the success. This may have been the most hard-earned trip to the Final Four and to do it without an integral player made it all the more rewarding.
“All this is all well and good, but all these shiny moments — one shiny moment — well, one moment that ain’t shiny and your season is over,” Auriemma said. “That’s how fragile all this is, and that’s why you’ve got to appreciate it and you’ve got to enjoy it. I don’t care how many of these we win. They’re still like the first one.”