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Muhl is an 'integral' part of No. 1 UConn's lineup as it finishes its road trip

In UConn's dramatic win at No. 25 Tennessee on Jan. 21, Nika Muhl didn't play. It wasn't tremendously unusual at the time, but soon after that Muhl became a regular part of the rotation for the top-ranked Huskies.

The freshman guard has started eight straight games now, none more impressive than Thursday night's 81-49 victory at Creighton, with 19 points and five steals as UConn clinched the Big East Conference regular season title.

It was only after Muhl was "in" that anyone inquired as to why she was "out" at Tennessee.

"Leading up to the Tennessee game we had some issues with Nika," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, "issues related to how she wants to play and the things she thinks are OK and we didn't agree on those things. Now, obviously, she agrees with me and so she's playing more. She's actually a very key, integral part of what we're doing right now."

After Thursday's performance, Muhl, who as a habit brings with her gales of laughter into a postgame Zoom conference, was asked about the difference of opinion with her Hall of Fame coach.

"It was just overall basketball. I was having a hard time understanding what kind of basketball was played here," said Muhl, who is from Zagreb, Croatia. "The movements, just overall the way we play and I was fighting that a little bit. I mean, you can't win against him so I just gave him that one. He won and, I mean, we all play much better since he won."

At this point, UConn junior Christyn Williams, sitting next to Muhl, helped explain the discrepancy between player and coach.

"It was the fouls," Williams said with a laugh. "She would be fouling in practice and then she wouldn't think it's a foul but she just punched the person. ... But now she's so much better."

UConn (19-1, 16-0) plays at Big East opponent Butler (2-15, 2-14) beginning at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Hinkle Field House in Indianapolis (SNY), the final chapter of the Huskies' ongoing five-game road trip.

Muhl, one of seven UConn freshmen, said that over the last few weeks she has stayed after practice to hone her outside shooting. On Thursday, she led the Huskies in scoring for the first time in her career. She eclipsed her career high of 11 points in the game's first 4 minutes, 38 seconds.

She is averaging 4.9 points per game along with 3.1 assists and 1.9 steals.

But even without the bulky stat line every time, Muhl, who represented Croatia at the 2018 FIBA U18 European Championship and is fluent in three languages (Croatian, English and German), makes UConn better. She was on the floor for 38 minutes against Creighton, more than anyone else on the team.

"She's infectious," Auriemma said. "She makes us a little more uptempo. The intensity level goes up a little when she's out there. She wants to make a spectacular pass every time down the floor. That's not necessary. But she wants to have an impact on the game.

"... Nika likes to break that plane, you know? She likes to go by people and draw any kind of help and is pretty good at getting rid of it really quick for one of our shooters and she has a sense of that. Nika, that's her strength is finding people."

Auriemma said that Muhl is part of the reason the UConn defense has improved in recent weeks since allowing 90 points in a loss to Arkansas on Jan. 28.

"Her being in the lineup has changed our defense. We are much more vocal, more active and more aggressive," he said.

"She's super gritty," UConn junior Evina Westbrook said. "She puts her body on the line. To have someone on the team like that? You want people like that on your team."

UConn, meanwhile has completed this five-game road trip, to Georgetown (Washington, D.C.), St. John's (Queens), Xavier (Cincinnati), Creighton (Omaha, Nebraska) and Butler, in a completely different fashion than ever before due to COVID-19.

For the first time this season, Auriemma took the team out to eat in Washington, D.C.

"It was cool," UConn freshman Aaliyah Edwards said. "We rented out the whole restaurant and it was just us in there. Coach was saying that in other years they would usually be doing this, trying to find the best spots in the city to go out to eat. It was good to kind of go out together like it was a normal year. I had ... it was like a gourmet fettuccine Alfredo."

Butler is led by junior guard/forward Okako Adika with 13.4 points per game.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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