Inside Nika Mühl’s decision to leave UConn women’s basketball after the ‘best year of my life’

UConn guard Nika Muhl (10) plays in No. 9 UConn’s 58-29 win over Marquette in the NCAA Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinal game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Sunday, March 10, 2024.

UNCASVILLE — Nika Mühl decided months ago that her career with the UConn women’s basketball team would end in March or, she hopes, April. Now she had to decide how to let the world know.

Nika Muhl announces final UConn women's basketball season

UConn’s director of women’s basketball communications Anna LaBonte had an idea and it involved coach Geno Auriemma’s black Mercedes convertible.

“It was just a funny thing that we talked about,” Mühl said Monday night. “But then we talked about it more seriously and I was like, ‘I’m not asking him. Someone else can ask him.’ Anna asked him and we made it happen.

“I didn’t want to do anything emotional or sad because I feel like I’ve had so many emotional moments this year that I wanted it to be something cool, something epic, something for people to see and not be sad but think, ‘This is so cool.’ So I’m the first player, first person to drive his Mercedes. Can you write that?”

On Friday as the Huskies prepared to head to Mohegan Sun Arena for the Big East tournament, Mühl posted several black-and-white pictures of herself and Auriemma in the Mercedes on her Instagram account saying that she would miss UConn Nation.

The final photo was of her and Auriemma sharing a hug outside the car next to the Werth Champions Center on campus.

“How long did she get it? As long as I was in it,” Auriemma said. “That’s how long she got it. She got it so she could go to a place all her pictures were going to be taken and I said, ‘Get out.’ That was it. She was done.”

But the senior guard from Zagreb, Croatia is not done yet.

Mühl had eight points and nine assists Monday night as top-seeded UConn routed No. 6 Georgetown 78-42 in the Big East tournament final before a partisan crowd of 7,918 at Mohegan Sun Arena. The victory gives the Huskies (29-5) their 11th straight conference tournament title and assures them their 35th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. UConn is expected to host an NCAA first-round game either March 22 or 23 at Gampel Pavilion. It will learn its tournament draw Sunday night.

“I feel like it’s been such an emotional year for me, what this program has done for me,” Mühl said. “They took me and my team to Croatia to play in front of my people, brought my sister over to play in Gampel, and then Senior Night … I mean, the whole year was too emotional for me, so many things going on.

“I’m forever grateful and thankful that I was able to share those moments with the whole team. And I’m so thankful to Coach and the whole coaching staff and the whole program, everybody, to be able to make that happen for me. I just felt like with all of that, it was the best year of my life.”

In tournament wins over Providence, Marquette, and Georgetown, Mühl — an all-Big East second-team selection for the second straight year and the 2022 and 2023 conference Defensive Player of the Year — averaged 7.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. She earned her first postseason tournament honor as she joined Most Outstanding Player Paige Bueckers and Ice Brady on the all-tournament team.

After moving past No. 4 Renee Montgomery Saturday and No. 3 Jennifer Rizzotti Sunday on UConn’s all-time assists list, she blew past Diana Taurasi for the No. 2 spot Monday night. With 651 career assists, she trails only Moriah Jefferson (659). Assist No. 649 that gave her second alone went to Bueckers for a layup.

UConn women's basketball's Nika Mühl stands out with her toughness and  stubborness, and Geno Auriemma wouldn't want it any other way – Hartford  Courant

UConn guard Nika Muhl (10) plays in No. 9 UConn’s 58-29 win over Marquette in the NCAA Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinal game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Sunday, March 10, 2024.

“I was mad, I forgot which game it was, when I didn’t get her 500th assist,” Bueckers said. “I’m glad I could do that one today. Playing with Nika has just been a joy. It’s kind of unfortunate we didn’t get to play together more, but this is like my sister, my twin …”

An emotional Bueckers then put her head on the table in front of her for a few moments.

“She’s been there for me through everything that I’ve been through, and I’ve been there for her whatever she’s going through,” she added. “But this is what makes the game of basketball so special is that we’re remembered for what we did on the court. But what us players will take away the most is our relationships and the memories and just the bonds that we’ve created.”

Also on Saturday, Mühl recorded her 200th assist of the season. With a school single-season record 284 assists as a junior and 218 as a senior, she is the only player in UConn history with more than one 200-assist season. She ranks No. 1 in assists per game at 5.17 and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.106, just behind Sue Bird (2.112) and Katie Lou Samuelson (2.116).

She’s leaving to pursue a professional basketball career. She could transfer and use her final year of eligibility but laughed that off, including the idea she could play alongside her younger sister Hana at Ball State.

“I don’t think I sat down and made a list of pros and cons,” Mühl said of her decision. “I just had that feeling that I’ve given my all in my time here. It’s time for other players. It’s time to move on to some different things.

“It’s not that I want to go home. Coming here was a huge adjustment. It’s so hard. But I took a leap of faith my freshman year. I took a leap of faith because of Coach. How much I trusted him as soon as I met him, I’d never experienced that before. I don’t trust people that easy. Him being able to give me that form of trust was like, ‘I have to go here and if I don’t I’m going to regret it.’ ”

She committed to the Huskies in April of 2019 without being on campus.

“I didn’t need to visit this place and see all this stuff,” Mühl said. “I knew it was bigger and crazier than anything at home. So it never came down to anything like that. It’s about relationships and winning and this is what this program is built on.”

Auriemma got an idea that Mühl would be leaving shortly after graduate student Aubrey Griffin suffered a season-ending knee injury at Creighton on Jan. 3.

He met with Mühl, Bueckers, and classmate Aaliyah Edwards.

“After the game it was like a morgue in there,” Auriemma said. “I said to them, ‘What do we want to do going forward? Are we going to let this define who we are or are we going to understand this is unfortunate and awful for Aubrey and we feel terrible about it, and let’s be grateful for what we have.’

“Paige was a big part of that conversation. Nika says, ‘We will be really good next year.’ So when we got back to campus I said to her, ‘I know you get your adjectives, nouns or words mixed up. What did you mean when you said that? She goes, ‘I meant UConn was going to be really good.’ I said, ‘But that doesn’t mean you?’ She said, ‘No!’ People change their minds. It was kind of a light moment, but we kind of had a sense that she has bigger plans.”

The Hall of Fame coach did not try to change Mühl’s mind.

“I knew when Nika makes up her mind on something she is pretty stubborn about things,” Auriemma said. “I said to one member of my staff, ‘God bless whoever coaches her when she is a little bit older.’ Can you imagine how impossible she is going to be?”

Mühl has between one and six games left at UConn. If it’s two, both will be played in Storrs. Two wins would send to a regional in either Albany, N.Y. or Portland, Ore. The Final Four will be Cleveland.

UConn guard Nika Muhl (10) plays in No. 9 UConn’s 58-29 win over Marquette in the NCAA Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinal game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Sunday, March 10, 2024.

She will pursue Jefferson’s record but more so pursue her first national championship and the 12th for the program.

“I don’t even know what to say anymore when it comes to numbers and stats like that,” Mühl said. “That’s not what drives me. That’s not why I play. I play for my teammates and I try to bring everything I can to every game. If I get it, great, I’m really proud of myself. But at the end of the day I just want to win with my teammates. That’s it.”

Nika Muhl Seattle Storm : r/WNBA_Thots

And when she becomes a professional player, she can use her money to buy a Mercedes like Auriemma’s.

“I learned so much from that man, and I’m still learning,” Mühl said. “I’m going to be learning from him after I leave. He’s everything to me. I love him so much. He’s not just my coach, he’s my best friend, he’s like my grandpa. It’s hard to play for him, but it’s going to be so hard not to play for him.”

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