Lou Lopez Senechal in crucial role for UConn women's basketball

Lou Lopez Senechal in crucial role for UConn women’s basketball

STORRS — Geno Auriemma was holding court in the Werth Champions Center lobby Thursday afternoon, facing two TV cameras and about 10 media members, when he noticed Lou Lopez Sénéchal exiting the building to his right.

“Hey, Lou,” Auriemma called out, pausing only briefly before getting back to the discussion of the day: How can the UConn women’s basketball team adjust to the absence of Paige Bueckers?

“Without Lou, I don’t know where we’d be,” Auriemma said.

A month and a half since Bueckers’ tore an ACL and underwent surgery, and a few weeks out from the start of practice, the Huskies are still exploring a new identity that will probably continue to take hold in the coming months, just like during an injury-plagued 2021-22 season.

Auriemma doesn’t have all the answers right now and he doesn’t need them quite yet. Throughout the coaching staff and up and down the roster, there is a wait-and-see mindset toward how players — and which players — will be able to apply increased production to additional demands.

Players at all positions are going to have more responsibility, and Auriemma has an early sense for who might be slightly better equipped to handle it. Lopez Sénéchal, 24, is at the top of that list — odd in that she’s never played a game at UConn, but predictable in how experienced she is and in how she thrived at Fairfield.

By scoring. A lot. Even as the focal point of every defense. Lopez Sénéchal scored 1,598 points in her four years with the Stags, including 19.5 a game last season as the MAAC player of the year.

“Everything rolls off her back, everything flows,” Auriemma said. “There’s nothing that gets her rattled. She’s played a lot of basketball in her life and she’s had a lot of success playing basketball. She comes from a really well-coached program. She had a lot of things run for her, where she was under tremendous pressure, especially when the played the best teams: ‘If I don’t’ score we’re going to lose.’ So she’s operated under that kind of pressure and being thrown into this has been no big deal, really.”

When Lopez Sénéchal decided to use her final year of eligibility at UConn, it was largely because she wanted to grow with, and prove herself against, the best players in college basketball. With the best player from that group reduced to an unofficial role as assistant coach, Lopez Sénéchal will find herself closer to the heart of UConn’s goals.

“That challenge I was looking for, I think it’s going to be even higher,” Lopez Sénéchal said.

Lopez Sénéchal has more room to contribute, and UConn has the need. Her role has shifted closer to go-to than complimentary.

“I definitely want to show my shooting abilities and being able to have an impact on the 3-point line,” she said.

Lopez Sénéchal shot 40 percent on 3-pointers last season for the Stags, who won the MAAC, finishing out coach Joe Frager’s career and one of the best season’s in program history with an NCAA Tournament loss in Texas.

Her offensive ability was about more than shooting over defenses, though. She went right at them, through them. To see her doing the same through summer and fall workouts at UConn has been among the most encouraging signs for Auriemma and his assistants.

“I think being able to score at the capacity she can score at is not normal, especially with women,” said assistant Morgan Valley, the first UConn coach to contact Lopez Sénéchal in March. “We tend to want to move the ball and pass it. Not that she doesn’t do that. But she knows how to score and she knows how to score in a lot of different ways. I think with her work ethic — and her teammates love her, and she loves being here — she’ll be fine at this level.

“Her mid-range game, she gets to her pull-up really easily. She doesn’t necessarily look that athletic but she gets her shot off on all the guys. She has the uncanny ability [to] turn the corner and get to the basket. It doesn’t always look like it’s going to happen and the next thing you know, she’s getting a layup or getting fouled or shooting a little turnaround jump shot.”

Lopez Sénéchal entered the transfer portal the same week UConn was playing its way through an NCAA Tournament regional and into a 14th consecutive Final Four. Her quick adaptation could ensure that the Huskies, even in Bueckers’ absence, have two prolific perimeter scorers in pursuit of a 15th. Sophomore guard Azzi Fudd and Lopez Sénéchal should be consistently viable options for junior Nika Mühl, stepping in at point guard, to feed.

“It’s different in that all the pressure isn’t on her to get a bucket every time down the floor like a lot of it was at Fairfield,” Auriemma said. “The last time we talked about it, I said, ‘Look, whatever you did at Fairfield, it’s going to be different here because we can’t possibly run as many plays for you as Joe did.’ Then she started laughing and I felt bad. She said, ‘Every play was for me.’ I said we can’t do that here. She goes, ‘Oh, no, I like this.’ You spread it around. If Lou goes 0-for-5, we’re not going five empty possessions. Azzi might make a bucket. carolina [Ducharme] might get a bucket. Dorka [Juhasz] might get a bucket. I mean, there are a lot of guys who can get a basket. But I said, ‘However many points you scored at Fairfield, it would be really nice if you did that here.’ That would really help us a lot.”

Lopez Sénéchal committed to UConn a few weeks after the Huskies lost to South Carolina in the national championship game. UConn, in that game, was overpowered inside and there is pressure, of course, on this season’s frontcourt. But the Huskies can counteract similar matchup problems by shooting over defenses and driving deep into them, too.

Fudd, a sophomore, needs to become one of the nation’s top players. Muhl, last season’s Big East defensive player of the year, needs to develop his mid-range game and run the offense. From Juhasz and Aaliyah Edwards up front, to multi-positional players like Ducharme, there is a lot of talent around Lopez Sénéchal, who was hounded by opposing defenses at the mid-major level and still scored prolifically. She might have more breathing room at UConn, but the players she’ll face 1-on-1, particularly in high-profile non-conference games and in the NCAA Tournament, will be bigger, faster and stronger than she is used to.

Against teammates and male practice players, Lopez Sénéchal has already stood out. On Catapult, the performance data system that UConn uses, her numbers are “off the chain,” Valley said.

“I think, even if I was already competitive, just being way more competitive,” Lopez Sénéchal said of the key to fitting in. “Being surrounded by great players, I think I just take it as a learning lesson. I’m really enjoying the fact that I get to learn from all the players here. And just being at a higher level, just mentally and physically, I have to be stronger. That’s what I’m looking for and it’s been good.”

Frager had announced his retirement during the season, citing health. Carly Thibault-DuDonis, previously the associate head coach under Lindsay Whalen at Minnesota, was named Stags coach on April 11. By that point, Lopez Sénéchal was being recruited by many high-major programs and she was well into discussions with UConn, having planned visited Storrs.

“We talked a little bit and she’s a very nice person,” Lopez Sénéchal said of Thibault-DuDonis. “She understood it was my fifth year. It was definitely not easy to leave Fairfield after four years but it was the right decision and she understood it. I think she’s a really good coach and is going to do great things there.”

Lopez Sénéchal, the oldest UConn player, was born in Mexico and raised primarily in France. She spent a year at a basketball academy in Ireland, learning English and looking for exposure, before winding up at Fairfield.

At UConn, she is one of five international players with Mühl (Croatia), Juhász (Hungary), Edwards (Canada) and freshman guard Inês Bettencourt (Portugal).

It didn’t take long for Auriemma to become really intrigued in the player and person she is.

“I’m trying to be myself,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “I think we’ve had good conversations when they were recruiting me and over the summer. Summer was very important, to have a feel for it, to get to know the teammates and coaches and get to know how practices are — adjusting to new roles that I might not have had before.”

Lopez Sénéchal has watched many UConn games on TV the past few years and was excited to play with Bueckers.

“Not just with her, obviously the whole team, but I was definitely loving all the workouts I was having with her, and getting very excited to share the court with her,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “I’m going to have to share it in another way.”

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