How UConn women’s basketball’s Caroline Ducharme led team while playing in pain: ‘Not afraid of anything’

The paradox in Caroline Ducharme having carried the UConn women’s basketball team through parts of a trying 2021-22 season is that she did so with a bum hip.

“There was a point where I was kind of just dragging my leg along,” she said.

Yet, as a freshman, she kept the injury-ravaged Huskies from crumbling.

She scored 14 points in 14 minutes in a victory over against Notre Dame, the game in which Paige Bueckers sustained knee injuries that would cost her most of the season. Two weeks later, on Dec. 19, Ducharme had 24 points in 40 minutes in a loss to Louisville at Mohegan Sun Arena, the start of a five-game stretch in which she scored 101 points.

She wound up on the All-Big East Second Team and All-Freshman Team, with averages of 9.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 21 minutes, making 11 starts. Ducharme was particularly effective in December and January as UConn was adjusting to life without Bueckers, Azzi Fudd and others. On Jan. 23, Ducharme scored 28 points in a victory over St. John’s, making 13 of 22 shots.

All of this is even more impressive, considering that Ducharme underwent surgery shortly after the season to repair a torn hip labrum on the left side.

“I don’t know where we would have been (without her) during that one stretch,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “She was our best player. … I think the thing that I admire most about Caroline is there isn’t a bone in her body that is fearful of anything. That kid is not afraid of anything, of any moment, of anything. The kid thinks she can do anything she sets her mind to.”

Ducharme’s injury was sustained before her arrival at UConn, She had to go to great lengths just to prepare for, and recover from, every game last season. Still, she kept suiting up and helped keep the Huskies from unraveling, until a late-season head injury cost her four games in February.

Ducharme talked to Auriemma several times about the status of her hip throughout the season. Surgery was performed a few weeks after UConn advanced to the Final Four for the 14th consecutive time, losing the national championship game to South Carolina . She spent the early portion of the offseason on crutches and now is just about at the point, six months later, where she is 100 percent recovered and cleared of longstanding workout restrictions.

“There have definitely been ups and downs, but my hip is definitely in a better place than it was last season so I’m thankful I was able to get it done,” Ducharme said. “I’m feeling a lot better. With injuries, they’re always trying to ease you back in and that can be frustrating, but I think it’s for the best. You don’t want to overdo it early on in the recovery. Last season, it was definitely really painful.”

Ducharme has endured numerous physical setbacks in recent years, having torn an ACL before her freshman season at Noble and Greenough School. As a sophomore, she torn a shoulder labrum and sat out the season. She came to UConn as a two-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the year, and the consensus No. 5 overall recruit in the Class of 2021.

Seeing what Ducharme was going through last season, Auriemma encouraged her to consider surgery.

“Before the season even started, I had to get it looked at,” Ducharme said. “It was in the conversation already that coach wanted me to consider it. Once we were midseason and I was really dragging it along, I was having to do a lot of recovery to get through every day type things. That was when he was like, ‘You’re going to get it fixed.’ ”

Ducharme enters her sophomore season on the watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award, given to the nation’s best small forward.

“Caroline has been good, and she’s another one where you have to [consider] how fast you want to proceed,” Auriemma said during Big East media day Oct. 18. “Because she wants to go full. It’s just how she is. But she’s not allowed to go full. Because she’s not ready, 100 percent, to go full. But the time that she’s out there, she’s the same Caroline.”

Auriemma said he’s particularly excited for Ducharme to share the court with Lou Lopez Sénéchal. Both are versatile scorers who will have more freedom and responsibility in the absence of Bueckers, who will miss the season with a torn ACL .

Ducharme, 6 feet 2, shot 45.5 percent from the field last season but just 28.8 percent on 3-pointers.

“I think she’s a much better shooter than she showed,” Auriemma said. “And a lot of times, it’s not necessarily how many, it’s when. She has a knack for making big shots. And she doesn’t rely on just that. I think if you asked her if she’d rather shoot a 3 or get into the lane and get a layup, she would tell you get in the lane and get a layup. She loves that part of the game.”

Ducharme will be relieved to play pain-free. She and Auriemma said she has gained upper-body strength while rehabbing that will allow her to affect the game in different ways.

“I’m getting there,” she said. “It’s slow. But I’m definitely feeling a lot healthier day by day and I’m in a much better place than I was a couple months ago.”