Blogs > Elm City to Eagleville

A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Emotional night at Mohegan

Things weren't exactly going the home team's way when I clicked the Twitter app on the my phone during the first half of last night's Connecticut Sun/Washington Mystics game

When I saw the tributes to former Sun coach Anne Donovan pouring in, I could hardly believe what I was reading. At the age of 56 and less than a week after she was seen at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Donovan died of heart failure.

Whether it was in her time as the Sun's coach, her stint at Seton Hall or other WNBA stops including the one when she guided the Sue Bird-led Seattle Storm team to the 2004 WNBA title, I've interviewed Donovan so many times. One of those sessions, however, stood apart from all the rest.

A few months before Donovan would coach her final season with the Connecticut Sun came the news that Shannise Heady, who played for Donovan at Seton Hall, died in a car accident.

“I think it is another life reminder that you take nothing and nobody for granted,” Donovan said in that late January, 2015 interview. “The relationships and interactions that we have with people on a day to day basis, it could be your last opportunity to make an impact with somebody and it is just a reminder of how short life can be.”

Those words resonate now more than ever. Tributes began making their way onto social media during last night's game and continue to roll in. They speak of her incredible basketball career when she was an iconic star at Old Dominion earning her induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame four years later and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015. What followed would be coaching stops at East Carolina and Seton Hall, Philadelphia of the ABL as well as with Charlotte, Seattle, New York and finally Connecticut in the WNBA. She also coached the U.S. to the 2008 Olympic title.

Donovan's time in Connecticut was not easy. The surprising firing of Mike Thibault (who happened to be coaching the visiting Washington Mystics last night) did not sit well with the Sun's star players. Asjha Jones would never play for Donovan while Tina Charles and Kara Lawson appeared in a combined total of 35 games during the 2013 season. The Sun posted records of 10-24, 13-21 and 15-19 with the Sun. In her final season, the Sun lost two games in overtime and three others in regulation by five points or less.

Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas came to Connecticut during Donovan's time there in trades with the Atlanta Dream and both have thrived during their time in Connecticut. Bentley spoke about the team being determined to play with an extra jump in their step in the second half after hearing of Donovan's death. The Sun did that by rallying to take the lead before falling 95-91. Trailing by 30 points, it matched the largest deficit a WNBA team overcame to take the lead. Ironically, the Sun set that mark in a loss to Minnesota in 2010.

Bentley and Thomas both spoke about how Donovan would keep in touch with them and when they least expected, she would send them a text message congratulating them on their recent success. Donovan made those gestures in her typical understated fashion. She wouldn't want to do anything that would take the spotlight off of the current coaching staff.

On a personal note, I really enjoyed my dealings with her. She wasn't as comfortable around the media as somebody like Thibault and it is no easy task being "the other" prominent women's basketball coach in Connecticut. There is a shadow cast by the incredible success of Geno Auriemma's UConn program especially since many of the reporters who cover the Sun also handle the daily coverage of UConn and in the beginning of her tenure with the Sun I'm not sure that Donovan was completely comfortable with all of that. She grew to embrace that role in her own way. I recall doing a story on the impact of transfers on the women's college game and she gave me some great stuff and when you went to her on subjects that might be a little off the radar, she never failed to deliver thought-provoking responses.

Last night was not an easy one for the players, coaches or media members all coming to grips with the loss of a true basketball legend all while doing their jobs at one of the arenas that become Donovan's basketball home away from home.

Monday, June 04, 2018

UConn may move away from position coaches

Since I've been covering UConn (and my first season on the beat was 1999-2000) it's been pretty easy to see how Geno Auriemma's assistant coaches are utilized.

Chris Dailey would work with the post players as would another assistant (first it was Jamelle Elliott and more recently Marisa Moseley). The other assistant (first it was Tonya Cardoza and now Shea Ralph) worked with the guards.

Ever since seeing that Jasmine Lister will work with the guards after she was hired as an assistant coach, I was wondering if it would force a shift in Ralph's duties. I finally got around to asking Auriemma about how Lister replacing Moseley on the staff would impact the coaching responsibilities tonight at the first of the UConn Road Show events.

"There is no offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator in our program," Auriemma said. "Shea's not going to move from where she is, she has such a great connection with these kids and as far as what CD is going to be doing, we've got some ideas moving forward about how we want to move our players around. We looked at our roster and it doesn't seem to me like we have a center so maybe we just say, 'OK, you guys down that end, you guys down this end' and not care much about who is where.

"There are just not that many big kids who want to play in the lane, the game has moved away from it in a certain sense. I still believe in it but I don't even know anymore what I see."

The players are back on campus meaning that the coaches get to see them (in small doses) playing pickup and going through conditioning drills so I got some updates.

First, the news is good on Mikayla Coombs return to the court. Her freshman season ended abruptly due to a blood clot issue forcing her to miss the NCAA tournament. That's a little different than a player coming off an ankle, knee or shoulder injury but Auriemma said things are progressing nicely.

"She's doing some individuals, haven't seen her play but a lot of the individual stuff she can go full (court) so we'll see where that takes her," Auriemma said. "If it is not completely gone, it will be. They have given her a clean bill of health going forward."

All-American Katie Lou Samuelson is no longer wearing a walking boot after undergoing surgery on the left ankle that she hurt early in the season but Auriemma said she is not yet cleared for basketball activities.

The best bit of UConn women's basketball related news I heard (actually I saw) was that Megan Walker headed to Missouri to go through workouts with Napheesa Collier. The sessions are run by Alex Bazzell who calls himself  a "NBA/WNBA Skills Trainer" on his Twitter account. One of the workouts was posted on Twitter and it showed Collier and Walker hitting jumping after jumper and going through a grueling workout. Bazzell's work with Collier played a key role in her development at UConn and I couldn't imagine a better role model for Walker than Collier. The competition didn't stop there. Samuelson can't take part in pickup games yet but she does make the call on which players are on which teams. Auriemma is delighted to hear that Samuelson makes certain that Collier and Walker are not only on opposing teams but have to guard each other.

"They had a little go at each today which I thought was good," Auriemma said. "I think the more of that, the better. (Lou) makes sure Pheesa and Megan are on opposite teams guarding each other so I think that will play out pretty well. I think it will help Megan a lot, Pheesa might be the best player she guards all year so not a bad way to start training."

It might already be out there but with UConn announcing that it will face Vanderbilt on Nov. 17 at Mohegan Sun Arena in the Hall of Fame Women's Showcase, it got me wondering if that was going to be the season opener. Fortunately, among tonight's attendees was UConn's Senior Associate Director of Athletics/External Relations Neal Eskine, who is the point man for the women's basketball schedule and he said that the home game against Ohio State will be the season opener.

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Friday, June 01, 2018

UConn's conference schedule is announced

The American Athletic Conference announced the women's basketball home and away schedule.

UConn, which has never lost a game as a member of the conference, will face UCF, Cincinnati, Houston, USF and Temple at home and on the road, will play at Tulane, Tulsa and Wichita State while East Carolina, Memphis and SMU will be home only opponents.

The dates and times will be announced at a later date and typically that takes place around Labor Day.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Bob Joyce to remain the radio voice of UConn women's basketball

Three and a half months after it was announced that 97.9 ESPN would become the new home for UConn's basketball, football and men's hockey programs, news has come out that Bob Joyce, the voice for the 11-time national champion women's basketball team would be continuing in that role.

The move means that Joyce will be leaving WTIC but will continue to call the games for Geno Auriemma's powerhouse program as well as men's hockey games when his schedule permits.

In other women's basketball broadcasting news, the WNBA's Connecticut Sun announced that NBC Sports Boston will air 22 regular-season games beginning with Friday's game at Chicago. Fox 61/CW 20 will carry five games (June 15 at Seattle, July 3 at Los Angeles, July 7 at Las Vegas, July 15 at Minnesota and July 22 at Dallas).

This means that only four of the Sun's 34 games won't be shown on either NBC Sports Boston, Fox 61, WCCT, ESPN2, Twitter or NBA TV.

Here's the schedule
June 1                    at Chicago                              9 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 3                    at Washington                      3 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 5                    at Atlanta                               8 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 7                    at New York                           7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston             
June 9                    Minnesota                             2 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 15                  at Seattle                               10 p.m.                   Fox 61/CW20
June 22                  at Atlanta                               7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 24                  at Indiana                               6 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 26                  at Washington                      7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
June 27                  Indiana                                   7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
July 1                      at Seattle                               7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
July 3                      at Los Angeles                      10:30 p.m.             Fox 61/CW20
July 7                      at Las Vegas                           10:30 p.m.             Fox 61/CW20
** July 11              New York                               11:30 a.m.             NBC Sports Boston
July 13                    Phoenix                                 7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
July 15                    at Minnesota                         7 p.m.                     Fox 61/CW20     
July 17                    Atlanta                                   7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
July 20                    Seattle                                    7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
July 22                    at Dallas                                 4 p.m.                     Fox 61/CW20
July 24                    Washington                           7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 1                New York                               7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 5                Las Vegas                               3 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 10              at Chicago                              9 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 12              Chicago                                  3 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 14              Dallas                                      7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 17              Minnesota                             7 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
August 19              Los Angeles                           3 p.m.                     NBC Sports Boston
*All times EST
** The New York Camp Day game will be re-broadcast at 7:30 p.m.

Monday, May 28, 2018

UConn incoming freshmen Nelson-Ododa, Williams named to U.S. U-18 team

The U.S. team playing in the FIBA Americas U18 Championships will be headlined by UConn incoming freshmen Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams.

The duo, who are expected to arrive on campus tomorrow, were among 12 players named to the team after trials held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Their inclusion is hardly a shocking turn of events considering that they were the top two scorers on the U.S. team that won the bronze medal at the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship for Women.

Here's a story I did on the two of them after catching up with Nelson-Ododa and Williams at Jordan Brand Classic media day last month.

Ten of the 12 players will be college freshmen in the fall - Jenna Brown (Stanford), Queen Egbo (Baylor), Nazarah Hillmon-Baker (Michigan), Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Jordan Nixon (Notre Dame), , Sedona Prince (Texas), Abby Prohaska (Notre Dame), Nalyssa Smith (Baylor) and the two UConn commits. The only players with remaining college eligibility are Aijha Blackwell and Class of 2019 Notre Dame commit Anaya Peoples meaning five of the 12 players are committed to either UConn or Notre Dame.

The 12 players will return to Colorado on July 20 to begin preparations for the tournament which will be held from Aug. 1-7 at a site to be determined.

Next up is the naming of the 12-member U-17 national team. The list of hopefuls has been cut from 156 to 18 with UConn Class of 2019 recruiting targets Aliyah Boston, Jordan Horston and Haley Jones among the finalists. The 12 players representing the U.S. in the FIBA U17 World Cup will be announced on Wednesday.

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Inspired by stars who have played in her hometown, now Aliyah Boston is the star attraction

Years before the honors started heading Aliyah Boston she was just another wide-eyed youngster heading out to the University of the Virgin Islands Sports & Fitness Center watching some of the top teams and players in the Paradise Jam tournament each November.

"Since I was younger I went every year," Boston said. "It did help because I got to watch basketball at another level."

UConn, which will play in the 2018 event, went undefeated at the events in 2007 and 2012 at that time they had no idea that a player who is one of the top recruits in the country would join the legions of fans of the UConn women's basketball program.

"When I first started playing basketball I loved UConn so I think it is just natural," Boston said.

Even with hosting elite programs on an annual basis, it's not easy for rising girls basketball players from St. Thomas to catch the eye of the top college programs. So in 2014 Boston made the difficult decision to leave her parents and move to Worcester where she lives with an aunt.

"It was really just about more exposure for basketball and better schooling," Boston said.

Boston would enroll at Worcester Academy and become a two-time Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year and now she has a chance to become the first girl from Massachusetts to win the award three times. Her story bears a striking resemblance to the journey Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun took to become one of the WNBA's rising stars. It has come at a price as being away from her parents can be challenging to say the least. That was never more evident than in September when Hurricane Irma touched down in St. Thomas, causing incredible carnage. Another category 5 hurricane hit the area a couple weeks later. There were some anxious moments when Boston was uncertain how her parents were doing. They were OK but in late September she tweeted "my home has been severly damaged from two category 5 hurricanes. Please help me provide disaster relief by donating whatever you can."

"I think I am getting better," Boston said of dealing with being away from her parents, "but it is still tough."

Boston knows why she relocated to New England and is taking advantage of her opportunities. She's a B student at Worcester Academy and is fresh off leading her school to the NEPSAC 2A title. She averaged 21.2 points, 14 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.2 steals and 6.2 blocked shots per game. Her junior season was highlighted by four triple-doubles and 19 double-doubles. She also had three games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds as a sophomore. Last summer she not only made the U.S. team which played in the FIBA Americas U16 Championships but she was the leading scorer and rebounder for the gold-medal winning United States squad.

Now she is back looking for a spot on the team playing in the FIBA U17 World Championships.

"I want to show them that I've gotten stronger, I want to show them my inside game but I also want to show them that I have developed an outside game with shooting and dribbling," Boston said.

If Boston spends any more time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado she might need to start paying rent. Not only was she was the U16 trials in 2017 but in March she teamed with Notre Dame commit Samantha Brunelle and UConn Class of 2020 recruiting targets Paige Bueckers and Hailey Van Lith on the winning Quest team at the USA Basketball Women's 3x3 U18 National Championship. Those four will reunite in October when they represent the U.S. at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina. Now she is back in Colorado again.

Boston credits her 3x3 experience for helping develop her game and play at a quicker pace.

"I think it does because it is so much faster than a regular 5 on 5, things happen so quickly so that really helps you out," Boston said. "It is really special because when you get to wear USA across your chest, it is just a great opportunity and it is just exciting."

Boston, the No. 7 rated prospect in the Class of 2019 by ESPN, will set up her five official visits before making her college decision. She isn't ready to divulge her list of five finalists but did say, "I'm down to five, UConn on that list."

Boston and fellow Class of 2019 UConn recruiting targets Jordan Horston and Haley Jones are among 18 finalists for the team as announced by USA Basketball this morning. The finalists will remain in Colorado Springs until May 30 when the 12-member team is announced.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Incentives to shine not hard to find for UConn recruiting target Haley Jones

After failing to make the U16 squad at last year's trials, motivation wasn't going to be a problem when UConn recruiting target Haley Jones returned to the U.S. Olympic Training Center for the U17 trials. However, the moment she caught a glimpse of her basketball idol who happens to be on the selection committee, there was even more reason for Jones to put on a show.

"My favorite player since I was little was Tamika Catchings so it is pretty cool that she is in the same gym as me," Jones said. "I like how she always worked so hard and is always the best teammate out there and I like players who work hard and are good teammates and the ones who have the balance of making the extra pass but also knowing how not to overpass, take their shot when it is their time.

"She is my idol, I don't even know her but at the same time I want to do so well."

Jones stands 6-1, the same height as Catchings. She also has the versatility that marked Catchings' time at Tennessee, with the WNBA's Indiana Fever and as a member of the U.S. national team. As a junior at national powerhouse Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, Calif. Jones led her team in scoring (21.9), rebounding (10.0) and blocked shots (2.5) while ranking second in assists (4.1) and steals (2.0). She had 19 double-doubles in 30 games including a triple-double against Saint Francis on Feb. 14. Her remarkable junior season saw her team ranked first in the national high school polls for stretches but it ended with a disappointing state tournament loss to Pinewood. Jones fouled out in regulation as her team lost in triple overtime. Still, it was a season she will never forget.

"We had such a great bond this year and team chemistry really helped us," Jones said. "It is just the heart that we play with and we do so much conditioning so that has a huge impact on our game. Coach (Sue) Phillips is an amazing coach so we wouldn't be where we are without her."

Phillips is no stranger to how things work at U.S. junior national team trials. Phillips was the head coach of the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championships. The leading scorer on that squad was UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson. Phillips, who also coached the U16 team featuring Samuelson and Crystal Dangerfield in 2013, gave her star player some words of advice before Jones left for Colorado.

"She coached the U16 team with Katie Lou, Sabrina (Ionescu) and all of those guys so she has definitely given me pointers on what to work on," Jones said. "I know Sabrina through the Cal Stars (AAU program) so she is giving me tips on what to look for and she said what was important was all the little intangible things, hustle play as well, doing everything to stand out."

Intangibles figure to play a role in Jones' college decision.

She has taken home visits to Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Texas, South Carolina, Louisville, UConn, Notre Dame and Cal. She will be cutting the list down sooner rather than later before taking campus visits in September and October.

Although she was given the nickname "Baby UConn" by her club teammates, she didn't want to speak in specifics about the 11-time national champions or any of the programs she is considering.

"I try not to single out any programs like that. I guess, I've tried to deal with every program the same so I am looking for the same things," Jones said. "I have developed a relationship with the UConn coaches as well as a lot of different coaching staffs."

I've made more than a few trips to Colorado for junior national team camps in the past but unfortunately I am not out there this time. However, based on the social media posts by those who on site who cover girls basketball recruiting, it certainly sounds like Jones is one of the top players out there. With the list of participants being cut from 156 to 102 to 70 and then to 45 less than an hour ago, Jones is alive and well in her quest to be on the team playing in the FIBA U17 World Cup in Belarus from July 21-29.

"I think personally I am doing pretty well out here," Jones said. "You always want every single shot to go in. What I've improved a lot is my ball handling and my shooting so I want them to see that as well as my capability to drive to the rim and get inside."

The 12-player team will be announced tomorrow.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Growth continues on and off the court for UConn recruting target Jordan Horston

When Jordan Horston cast her eye toward playing high school basketball, she sort of figured she would have normal size to play point guard. That all changed when she grew six inches in a summer and after leading Columbus (Ohio) Africentric to its second state time in her first three high school seasons, she now stands 6-2.

While her body has changed, the essence of who she is when Horston steps on the basketball court remains the same. She revels in her ability to make her teammates better and would rather throw a crisp bounce pass leading to a layup for a teammate than fire away at will on the perimeter.
Jordan Horston in action with U.S. U-16 national team (USA Basketball photos)

"My style of play, I like to pass the ball anyways, I like getting my teammates involved because it makes the game a lot more fun," said Horston, a top 10 rated player in the Class of 2019 who is planning to take a visit to UConn next week.

Horston was not only a member of the U.S. team which won the gold medal at the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championships but she led the squad with 17 assists and was second on the team in 106 minutes played. Now she is looking to make the U17 team competing for a world title in Belarus from July 21-29.

Horston is the type of player who could set off a triple-double alert each time she steps onto the court. She averaged 18.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4 assists and 4.3 steals per game as a junior when she was a co-winner of the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association Division III Player of the Year honor. Horston has the length to play on the wing and that is exactly what she did as a junior but she still has the same point guard mentality before her growth spurts.

"I feel like every kid should start off with basic ballhandling because you never know if you will grow or not," Horston said. "I am glad I grew but I am also glad I had those point guard skills as well. It is like having two point guards on the court at the same time if I don't have the ball a lot."

The plan is for Horston to be back at point guard for her final high school season.

Horston's athletic background is a rather interesting one. She was coached by her dad when she learned the game and related to former North Carolina and WNBA star Sylvia Crawley who is an assistant coach with the Tar Heels which certainly figures to have played a factor in North Carolina being the first program to offer her a scholarship. However, her first athletic endeavor was as a cheerleader. Then she shifted to soccer and there was a time when it looked like that could be a sport she stuck with. Track and field came next before she got serious about basketball. She has also run cross country and in high school she is a star tennis player and a member of the softball team.

Although she is the epitome of a team-first player, taking part in individual sports like tennis, cross country and track aided in her development as an athlete and person.

"Definitely I think it helps me especially if you are doing track or cross country because it keeps you in shape for your next sport," Horston said.

Something else that allows Horston to stand apart is her loyalty. In this age when players change high schools and AAU programs seemingly on a whim, Horston has been committed to Columbus Africentric and since she started to play with the All Ohio AAU program, she has not had a wandering eye.

"He (Jaybee Bethea) got me to where I am today so he put me on the stage to let me do what I do so why would I (leave) because he is the reason I am where I am today and it is a good program," Horston said.

Horston's former AAU teammates Valencia Myers and Bexley Wallace signed with Florida State and Penn State respectively and they've been there to give Horston somebody to bounce ideas off when the recruiting process might get a tad bit overwhelming.

"They pushed me and they have already told me that it is your decision, you just have to pray about it and don't get stressed out about it," Horston said. "They just give me a lot advice on how I should handle the recruiting process. I think I am doing a pretty good job. At first it was overwhelming but I have narrowed (the list of schools) down so it has been a lot easier."

While she hasn't been focusing on recruiting since arriving in Colorado Springs, that will soon change as one of her first tasks after the trials are over will be heading to UConn for her visit.

"I am definitely excited," Horston said. "You know he (Geno Auriemma) is a great coach, he makes players better and that is what I want, I want somebody to push me and make me better. I don't want to go somewhere where I am comfortable because that is not how I get better. I'd like to be put in an uncomfortable situation so I can get better so I feel like he does that. I have watched some of his practices, I just feel like he is a great coach and he produces great players."

USA Basketball announced the first cut after Saturday's morning session and she was among the 102 players moving on. Mercy High School forward Vienna Knox, the only Connecticut native at the trials, did not make the cut. The 12-member team will be announced on Monday.