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'This is gonna be her year': UConn eager to have a fully healthy Caroline Ducharme

Despite two injury-marred seasons to start her college career, Ducharme has proven she can make an impact when called upon.

Photo: Ian Bethune

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Last week’s Weekly:

UConn is eager to get a fully healthy Caroline Ducharme back

In basketball terms, Caroline Ducharme’s sophomore campaign ended up as a lost season of sorts. She missed the first game due to neck stiffness, admitted she wasn’t at 100 percent for a stretch afterward, suffered a concussion that kept her out 13 game,s and dealt with lingering symptoms the rest of the way.

As a result, her offensive numbers dropped compared to her freshman year: Her points went from 9.8 to 7.4 and she shot 5.2 percent worse overall.

While UConn didn’t get as much as it might’ve hoped from Ducharme the basketball player, it learned plenty about Ducharme, the person.

“She's one of the most strong and resilient people I know,” Paige Bueckers said. “With all that she's been through, the way that she fights — her strength is unimaginable.”

“She's one of the strongest people on the team,” Nika Mühl agreed. “The things that she had to deal with, the things that she had to go through, she went through them with a smile on her face and perseverance every day.”

The Huskies also realized how much they missed Ducharme’s ability and presence on the court. Aside from her usual contributions in the course of the game — scoring, shooting, rebounding, and defending — the rising junior has shown off a clutch gene through all the injuries.

When UConn needed a game-winning bucket in the final moments against DePaul in January of 2022, she delivered a makeshift, side-step shot with 1.6 seconds left.

With the score tied, I just wanted the ball in her hands,” Geno Auriemma said postgame.

This past season, the Huskies found themselves down by 11 in the fourth quarter to Creighton. Even though Ducharme started the game 0-6 from the field, she bounced back to score 10 of the team’s 23 points in the fourth quarter — including a pair of game-winning free throws with 4.8 seconds left.

“I always say Caroline is our best clutch player on the team,” Mühl said. “She's the person that I want to get the ball when the clock is running out and we need a big bucket. She’s the player for those moments.”

The most impressive part of that performance? It was Ducharme’s first contest back after missing the previous 13 while in concussion protocol.

“When the pressure’s on and when it's most important, she finds a way to make a play,” Auriemma said afterward.

Ducharme’s sense of when to step up goes beyond crucial moments in individual games, too. When injuries decimated UConn’s backcourt for a stretch in 2021-22, the then-freshman led the team in scoring at 16.2 points over a 16-game span.

The Huskies have never doubted Ducharme’s basketball ability. Instead, availability has been her biggest issue. She’s been working to fix that this summer and seems to be moving in the right direction.

“I'm feeling good. I've definitely made a lot of progress,” Ducharme said. “I'm doing a lot of rehab and different treatments in the offseason back home, here. So I'm excited. I'm definitely in a better place than I was when the season ended and making progress. Every day is a little bit better.”

Part of what made last season especially difficult was the nature of her injuries. Concussions can’t be treated with tape, ice or a massage. Rest is the only way to get better, which often meant being away from the team and the gym to limit her exposure to bright lights or loud noises. Ducharme admitted the isolation weighed on her at times.

“I think it kind of goes under-noticed, I guess, the mental side of it — especially with concussions. A lot of your rehab is resting, a lot of it is doing nothing,” she said. “That was really hard because — for all of us — this is our lives. This is what we do, this is what we want our career to be. Everything that surrounds our life goes into basketball. It's definitely really hard to be taken away from it, and to not really feel like you're doing much to get back. Resting doesn't necessarily always feel like it.”

Ducharme knows her primary focus this summer needs to be on getting healthy but that doesn’t mean she won’t try to make up for some lost time on the basketball court, too. She had to sit through most of UConn’s offseason activities after undergoing hip surgery to repair a torn labrum, so she’s antsy to get some work in.

“I've always been trying to work on my defense since I got here. Last year having hip surgery, I kind of took a step back with it,” she said. “This year being able to guard someone better one-on-one, be able to rebound, and be able to be in the right position and make more of an impact defensively, I think that's been my biggest focus in the offseason.”

That drive helps make Ducharme who she is, though. Auriemma has long admired her commitment to the game regardless of the obstacles in her way and is a major reason why she ended up at UConn. Through two seasons, the Huskies have seen how impactful she can be, but only in flashes because of the injuries.

If Ducharme can use this summer to get healthy so that basketball’s her only focus, UConn will have another dangerous weapon in the backcourt.

“I'm expecting a big comeback from her,” Mühl said. “I feel like this is gonna be her year.”

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