Blogs > Elm City to Eagleville

A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Friday, July 22, 2016

UConn's Kia Nurse named to Canadian Olympic team

UConn's Kia Nurse, in action during the FIBA Americas final, will play
in her first Olympic Games next month as key player for Canada.
UConn guard Kia Nurse emerged as a star of the Canadian national team last summer while leading her country to the FIBA Americas and Pan Am titles so it was hardly a shock that she is part of the 12-member Olympic team which was announced on Friday.

In the FIBA Americas event Nurse averaged a team-best 13 points per game and added 18 rebounds, 11 assists and six steals in the six games. She led the team in scoring (averaging 13.6 points per game) in the run to the gold medal at the Pan Am Games. She also averaged 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.

Nurse, who has earned the reputation of playing her best when the stakes are the highest in her first two seasons at UConn, has also played at a high level at the most opportune times with the national team. She had 20 points in the 82-66 victory over Cuba in the FIBA Americas championship game which earned Canada a spot in the Olympics. She had 33 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals in the Pan Am gold medal game to lead Canada to a win over the United States team led by UConn All-Americans Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson.

Nurse was the only player to start all 38 games en route to UConn's run to a record 11th national title during the 2015-16 season. She finished fifth on the team in scoring averaging 9.3 points per game and was one of four players with at least 100 assists. She is expected to take on a large role offensively following the graduation of Jefferson, Stewart and Morgan Tuck.

The 12 players who took part in the FIBA Americas and Pan Am events have all been named to the Olympic team.

Former Notre Dame star Natalie Achonwa is joined by fellow 2012 Olympians Miranda Ayim, Kim Gaucher, Lizanne Murphy, Michelle Plouffe, Shona Thorburn and Tamara Tatham. While Nurse, Nirra Fields, Miah-Marie Langlois, Katherine Plouffe and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe will be first time Olympians.

Nurse has missed the first two stages of preparation for the Olympics after undergoing sports hernia surgery after helping the Huskies win the national title. She is expected to be able to practice without restriction later today when the team begins its final training camp in Toronto before playing exhibition games against Australia on July 27 in Newark, Delaware, versus the U.S. on July 29 in Bridgeport and against France on July 31 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Canada opens play in the Olympics on Aug. 6 against China.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Coombs commits to UConn

Mikayla Coombs, a 5-foot-8 guard out of Wesleyan School in Norcross, Georgia, has become the third player from the Class of 2017 to commit to UConn.

Coombs made her announcement on her Twitter page

I am very happy to announce that I have committed to the University of Connecticut ! 🔴🔵⚪️ pic.twitter.com/GxvXZtiAaJ

Normally I'd be on the phone with her at some point today but since I am currently on vacation, I'll most likely wait to touch base with her until later this month or in August.

Coombs averaged 13.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game as a junior. With the graduation of leading scorer Cairo Booker (the only other player to score more than 10 points per game last season) I would expect her individual scoring stats to improve next season. The most important thing about her time in high school is how she got used to playing in a winning environment as Wesleyan since the program has won 11 state titles since 2002 and 2003 is the only year they haven't reached a state final since 2001.

Here's a blog entry I did on her during the U.S. U-17 national team trials.

Coombs is ranked fourth in the Class of 2017 by All-Star Girls Report, is sixth in the Blue Star rankings and is No. 21 according to ESPN HoopGurlz.

She joins Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Lexi Gordon as players in the next recruiting class committed to UConn.

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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Former UConn star Montgomery adjusts to new role

Earlier in her career former UConn star Renee Montgomery was asked to provide offense whenever she was in the game as she averaged at least 10 points per game in four of her first five seasons.

However, when Montgomery joined a star-studded Minnesota team last July, she wasn't going to be asked to shoot at will. Montgomery was asked to be more responsible with the ball, bring defensive energy off the bench and when given the opportunity to take an open shot.

Montgomery posted the best assist/turnover ratio of her professional career in the 19 regular-season games she played with the Lynx last season. This season she is averaging more steals per 40 minutes of her career.

"A team like ours when we have so many weapons, you have to find a niche for yourself so ball pressuring and 3s will be good ones for me," Montgomery said before Thursday's game at Connecticut. "The coaching stuff instilled so much confidence in me as a player that if I see the rim and I am open, I get yelled at all the time that I don't shoot the ball enough. They have a lot of confidence in me as a player so that helps with how you perform."

That was never more evident than in the closing moments of the clash of undefeated teams when Montgomery hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left in a 72-69 win at Los Angeles.

"They don't just talk the talk," Montgomery said. "It is one thing that they say 'we need you to shoot' but when you shoot they get mad and if you miss it they will get you mad and take you out. They are not like that. They want me to shoot shots because they think I can make shots so for her (Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve) to draw up a play for me to shoot in one of the biggest games in WNBA history, it proves they are not just giving me lip service, they really believe that.

"Those are the games when you are working out, nobody is in the gym and you are imagining you are shooting the last shot. Everybody sees somebody doing '3-2-1.' Those are the kinds of games where all that working out, that is the game you are preparing for."

Lynx star Maya Moore, the all-time leading scorer in UConn history, also reflected back on one of the most hyped regular-season games in recent WNBA history.

"If you are in a competitor you want to be in those situations where there is a little extra something added to the game with two teams having a chance to play each other going in undefeated," Moore said. "It was a fun game and I was glad we were able to finish it the way we wanted to. We learned a lot."

Speaking of learning lessons, Montgomery and Moore are two of six freshmen at UConn to play at least 1,000 minutes. While it is uncertain how many minutes highly-touted freshman Crystal Dangerfield will play, she figures to have a prominent role so I asked Montgomery what advice she would give to Dangerfield.
"I would just tell her to take it all in, whatever Coach Auriemma says, you have to ignore the delivery and listen to the message," Montgomery said. "He might go off on you for a long period of time but the point is to take care of the ball. Sometimes you have to ignore the delivery and listen to the message."

TOUGH BREAK FOR BANHAM
After Thursday's overtime victory Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller said rookie guard Rachel Banham would undergo knee surgery that should keep her out through the Olympic break. It turns out her time on the sidelines will be longer than that.

Banham had season-ending micro-fracture surgery on her right knee Friday at the Constitution Surgery Center in Waterford. Banham will need between 4-6 months of rehabilitation before she returns to the court.

“While we are obviously disappointed to lose Rachel for the remainder of the season, we remain tremendously excited about her bright future with the Sun,” Miller said in a statement. “Rachel showed the potential to be an impact player in this league despite playing through significant pain for the majority of the season. We really appreciate her grit and determination to play when less than 100 percent, but it is now time for her to concentrate on her rehab so she can come back healthy for her second season."

Banham averaged 3.7 points in 10.9 minutes per game while shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. She had two double-digit scoring games. Her final stint with the team as a rookie came when she played 4:34 in the overtime win. The only time she saw after halftime was the 3.1 seconds she was on the court late in overtime with the Sun up by two and Miller opting to put his best foul shooters on the court with the Sun leading by two points with 10.9 seconds left to play. After Alex Bentley made the first of two free throws, Banham checked out of the game.

While there is no good time for an injury like this to happen, Connecticut is in a better situation after recently acquiring USF star Courtney Williams as part of a trade that sent Kelsey Bone to Phoenix. Williams played more than any other Sun player after the first quarter in the Minnesota game.

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Report: Australia wing on UConn's recruiting radar

An additional scholarship came available following the transfer of Courtney Ekmark to Arizona State and according to a report, the UConn coaching staff is in the mix with Australian Chantel Horvat.

The 6-foot-2 Horvat was a member of the Australian team which won the bronze medal at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championships.

Horvat averaged 5.7 points and 2.1 rebounds per game in the U-19 Worlds and her average of 22.54 points per 40 minutes ranked second on the team.

It's pretty interesting how UConn got involved with Horvat as current Phoenix Mercury star Penny Taylor, a member of the Australian Olympic teams which lost to the U.S. in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, told UConn coach Geno Auriemma about Horvat. Assistant coach Shea Ralph reached out to Horvat via email to see if she was serious about coming to the U.S. to play in college which is not a path the top Australian stars normally take.

The last time UConn went hard after a recruit from Australia came during the Diana Taurasi era when the Huskies were in the running to land Jessica Foley before she chose to head to Duke and actually hit a game-winning shot to beat the Huskies snapping UConn's 69-game home winning streak in 2004.

Horvat was the co-MVP of the Australian Junior National Championships in 2015 after averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds in the eight games. Her performance at the Australia U-16 championships in 2013 really put her on the radar. She averaged a tournament best 16.3 points per game and also averaged 8.1 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game.

She broke into the SEABL at age 14, the youngest player to ever see time in the league. This past season she averaged 9.7 points per game for the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence squad. As a point of reference, the top scorers in the league include former Division I standouts Kayla Standish, Chante Black (a former first-round pick of the Connecticut Sun), Kathleen Scheer and Mikaela Ruef.

UConn has three scholarships remaining in the Class of 2017 with U.S. U-18 team member Megan Walker as well as Mikalya Coombs both planning to visit UConn either later this summer or in the fall.

“It’s pretty surreal to think that UConn is now also one of the schools that are recruiting me," Horvat said in a blog post on the www.livonbasketball.com site. "Their presence will definitely make it harder to make a decision now."

Friday, July 08, 2016

UConn's Kia Nurse on road to recovery

At this rate it might save time by listing the members of the UConn women's basketball program who haven't undergone medical procedures in the last couple of months.

Well, it is time to add Kia Nurse to the list. According to this report, she underwent sports hernia surgery but is expected to be recovered in time to play for Canada in the Olympics.

"It wasn't something she could work through and play through this summer, it was a necessity," Canadian national team coach Lisa Thomaidis said.

Nurse will not play in the upcoming international friendlies against China on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the Edmonton Grads International Classic but Thomaidis believes Nurse will be cleared to take the court when the team gathers in Toronto on July 21 for Phase 3 of preparations for the Olympics.

Nurse was a breakout star for Canada last summer, leading the team in scoring en route to winning the Pan Am Games title and the FIBA Americas tournament with the latter event qualifying Canada for the Olympics.

Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson, Nurse, Crystal Dangerfield and Batouly Camara are among the UConn players who have undergone surgeries since the end of the season although all are expected to be fully recovered by the time UConn kicks off official practice in October.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Connecticut Sun's Stricklen reflects on loss of her mentor

With Minnesota in town for tonight's WNBA contest at Mohegan Sun Arena, I did catch up with former UConn stars Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery and will have something coming up on them in the coming days. However, this is my first chance to catch up with former Tennessee star Shekinna Stricklen since the passing of legendary Lady Vols' coach Pat Summitt.

Stricklen said "I cried until I couldn't cry anymore."

Stricklen was among Summitt's former players to make it to Knoxville to get one last chance to see her mentor.

"It helped me come to peace with everything, seeing her peacefully, not hurting and not suffering made me feel a lot better," Stricklen said. "I cried until I couldn't cry anymore but it was good that my teammates (supported me), all the coaches were there, (Connecticut Sun coach) Curt (Miller), (Sun general manager) Chris (Sienko) everybody was there for me and it made me feel a whole lot better. It was not just my family back home (supporting her) but being in Connecticut is also a family."

The chance for different generations of Lady Vols gathering aided all of those who made the trip.

"We were able to come together, share our stories from her team in 1974 all the way to 2012, all of them were there and we were able to share stories, laughing and it made everybody feel better," Stricklen said. "She impacted me more off the court. On the court she stayed on me because I was so laid back, I can hear her always screaming at me not to be so laid back but off the court, she was very loyal, very respectful. She treated everybody the same it didn't matter who you were and I really got that from her.

"Last week was very emotional for me. I was able to go to Knoxville and I was able to get to see her on Monday which really helped me out a lot. Just being around her left me with a lot of memories. Every memory, every moment with her I will never forget."

Since Summitt's death Stricklen has been blown away by the reaction to the passing of a true legend.
"It's amazing to see so many people wearing 'We Back Pat' shirts, writing about her and knowing she is a legend," Stricklen said. "She really made women's basketball. Seeing that so many people see all that she has done and brought into the game is amazing."

Stewart is WNBA's Rookie of the Month - again

Former UConn star Breanna Stewart is a perfect 2 for 2 in securing WNBA Rookie of the Month honors.

In June, Stewart led all rookies in scoring (19.5 points per game), rebounding (9.5 rpg) and blocked shots (2.0 bpg) and ranked second in assists (3.6 apg) in 11 games.  Among all WNBA players, she was first in rebounding, second in blocks, third in minutes played (34.4 mpg) and fifth in scoring.
Stewart had four straight 20-point games including a 38-point explosion in a win over Atlanta on June 28 which is the third-highest total for a rookie in WNBA history.

For the season, Stewart leads the league in rebounding (9.8 rpg) and is seventh in scoring (18.7 ppg).  Stewart also has seven double-doubles.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Catching up on a busy week

Among the things I've learned while covering the UConn women's basketball team is when you chose the days and weeks when you try to get away, invariably that is when the news happens.

Case in point, I headed to my nephew's graduation from the University of Michigan in late April and vowed to not turn on my computer in the time I was there. I stayed true to my word until it became apparent that Azura' Stevens would be transferring to UConn. That news was just the tip of the iceberg.

I had last week off and needed each day as I completed a move to a place closer to UConn. With Geno Auriemma's annual golf tournament being on Monday, the plan was to take an extra day the week before because the chance to catch up with Auriemma and his players was simply to valuable. Well, the rest of the week was anything but tranquil in the world of women's basketball.

Obviously the news of Pat Summitt's death is as big of a story as the sport has experienced in recent memory. I wrote a short blog when I heard the news about my interactions with her and plenty of others have been weighing in. The one person in the newspaper industry I was most interested in hearing from was Dan Fleser, the highly-respected Tennessee beat writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Fleser did not disappoint with what I consider a must read bit of reflection of a relationship between a reporter and legendary coach.

When I was at Geno's golf tournament, I was the last of the reporters to arrive as I used the trip to West Hartford to move more stuff into my place and ran a little behind schedule. When I got there, Batouly Camara had to return to campus and when I didn't see Courtney Ekmark I figured she had a similar story. Well, you know what they say about people who assume things. On the date when I was moving my big stuff, for some reason I woke up about three hours earlier than I planned and checking the time on my phone, I noticed reports of Courtney Ekmark's transfer to Arizona State from the media outlets in Arizona. It's ironic that during one of my trips to the airport last year to cover the UConn football team, she was at the next gate over accompanied by her father and lots of her stuff. After chatting with the Ekmarks, it turned out the players were given permission to go home for a few days. I didn't happen to be at the airport during the time when she truly was heading home for good.

Ekmark seemed to embrace life at UConn so in one sense I'm a little surprised especially with a lack of available players on the 2016-17 UConn team with any height. She would have competed with freshman Kyla Irwin to be the second forward off the bench (even if she was listed as a guard) but the chance to play close to home and perhaps get more of a chance to play was too much for Ekmark to pass up and if she didn't make an impact as a junior, Stevens and Batouly Camara would become eligible when Ekmark would have been a senior.

I'm sure by now you've heard of the question and answer piece with Duke coach Joanne P/ McCallie posted by the Duke Chronicle on Friday.

Certainly McCallie's criticism of Auriemma for accepting Stevens and Camara as transfers generated more attention in these parts. I found it comical that a coach who perpetually underachieved in the postseason would offer criticism of the four-time defending national champions. I was more disturbed (but not completely surprised considering her action in post-game press conferences) with the way she threw Stevens and Angela Salvadores under the proverbial bus.

While I read the comments on the factors leading to Stevens' departure as she blamed UConn, Stevens and her family, USA Basketball, the ozone layer (OK, maybe not that one) it reminded me of the scene in the Blues Brothers when the character played by Carrie Fisher was preparing to shoot John Belushi's character as payback for leaving her at the altar.

"I ran out of gas. I got a flat tire. I didn’t have change for cab fare. I lost my tux at the cleaners. I locked my keys in the car. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!" 

If I were the subject of an internal investigation as a result of my actions resulting in departures of players and assistant coaches, my initial reaction would be to look in the mirror and ponder how I was going about my business. Sadly for the Duke program and its fans, it doesn't appear that is the way McCallie chose to deal with it. Apparently everybody else is to blame but not her. I would have to think that the quotes on Stevens and Salvadores just may come up when programs are recruiting against Duke for elite players.

It is very rare to see coaches go off on kids leaving their programs even if there is an axe to grind and it is for good reason. I would think any parent of a player being recruited by Duke would cringe that the person they are entrusting to be the coach would act in such a fashion. She already had several strikes against her including the consistent departures of go-to players from the program and the perception that her players don't improve as much in the Duke program as in other top-level ones. Now she is on the record disparaging her players. The whole rant about Auriemma adding transfers because he wants to win falls under the category of "that's true and what exactly is wrong with that."

There's been a lot of chatter that Auriemma has changed his philosophy on transfers which is not accurate. There are programs who rely heavily on transfers but that has never been Auriemma's way of proceeding. He has gone on the record saying he has little interest in junior-college kids but not once has he ever said he won't take transfers. The issue is accepting the right type of kids into the program whether they are transfers or high school prospects. This season he will have three transfers on the team which is highly unusual but all three left programs that were not the same programs they entered. Natalie Butler left Georgetown after a brilliant freshman season after head coach Keith Brown was suspended and eventually resigned after being accused of verbally abusing players. The Duke and Kentucky programs have seen wholesale personnel changes with only eight players currently on the Kentucky roster and Alexis Jones, Sierra Calhoun and Stevens among the former Duke stars on the rosters of other top teams this season. Camara was recruited by the Huskies coming out of Blair Academy but UConn was a little late to the party as she opted to head to Kentucky. Stevens played with UConn's Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield and went through the trials with Katie Lou Samuelson with the U-19 national team last summer so there is a sense of familiarity with both of them. There will be much more on Stevens and her decision to come to UConn later this week.

With the Duke brand, McCallie will continue to get top players but I have to admit that I will wonder why a player who is serious about basketball would go to play for McCallie especially with Stephanie White's arrival at Vanderbilt giving players who would consider Duke as well as the improvements of the Northwestern program to go with perennial national-championship contending programs Notre Dame and Stanford, it will be interesting to see how the recruiting side of things work at Duke in the next few seasons.

Camara underwent surgery to repair a pre-existing issue (this year's UConn team seems to have plenty of those) in her right shoulder. She is expected to be good to go for the preseason but of course needs to sit out the season due to NCAA rules on transfers.

I also regret not taking a trip down memory lane with Gabby Williams when we met up with the team last week since the women's high jump at the U.S. Olympic trials was today. I tuned into the event four years ago because I had written a feature on former Amity High star Allison Barwise and I was curious how she would do. Williams, then just 15, finished fifth and the reaction of the veteran jumpers when Williams made it over 6-0 1/2 (on her third and final attempt) and 6-2 1/4 was the best part of the entire event. I had no idea I'd be writing about Williams due to her exploits on the basketball court and not her world-class jumping ability.

Finally, the U.S. team wrapped up play in the FIBA U-17 World Championship for Women and after finishing third in the FIBA Americas 16 event last summer, they ended up earning the bronze medal once again after losing to Australia in the semifinals.

Christyn Williams, who visited UConn last year along with UConn commit Lexi Gordon in January and was in attendance at the Huskies' win over Temple, was the second-leading scorer for the U.S. averaging 11.9 points per game. Williams had four straight double-digit scoring games before being held to two points in the loss to Australia. She also averaged 4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.3 steals in the tournament.

Oh, and the Connecticut Sun won a game by coming from behind on the road. Alex Bentley, who seems to be playing with much more passion following the trade of Kelsey Bone, had 24 points as the Sun improved to 4-13 (only three games out of a playoff spot). The Sun won at Dallas 86-83 and now head home to face Minnesota on Thursday.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

UConn's Ekmark transferring to Arizona State

Courrney Ekmark, a member of two national championship teams at UConn, will finish her college career back in Arizona as she is transferring to Arizona State.

"It was a difficult decision to leave but I'm really excited to play for (Arizona State coach) Charli (Turner Thorne)," Ekmark told the Arizona Republic on Tuesday, "I'm just looking to start a new chapter in my life. I'm a west coast girl to be honest. I learned a lot from playing for Geno Auriemma."

Ekmark averaged 2 points, 1.1 rebounds in 8.9 minutes per game as a sophomore. She played at least 10 minutes in 13 games seeing a season-high 19 minutes in wins over Colgate and Central Florida. She finished her UConn career with 119 points, 75 rebounds and 23 3-pointers in 61 career games.

With the graduation of Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck and with transfers Batouly Camara and Azura' Stevens not being eligible until the 2017-18 season, there was an opening for Ekmark to earn a more significant role during the upcoming season.

“Courtney is a great kid and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to get to know her and her family,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said in a statement. "Everyone at UConn misses her already and we wish her nothing but the best in the future.”

I spoke with Ekmark at the Final Four about her fight to earn minutes in her first two seasons with the Huskies.

"Mostly it is just consistency, trying to show up for practice every single day and really just working hard, really doing whatever I can," Ekmark said.

"It is always hard to play here but it definitely has been easier than my freshman year. Sophomore year with more experience, you have been here before and you know how it all goes so it has gone better for me

"I think it is really really important to show up every day with the same attitude, work my butt off no matter what happens. As long as I can control the things that I can control, that is what I need to do."

Ekmark was Arizona's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013 helping St. Mary's High School, coached by her father Curtis, to its third consecutive Arizona Division I title. With most of the St. Mary's team graduating, Ekmark opted not to play as a senior and spent the season working out to prepare for her time at UConn.

Ekmark is the second player from her class to leave UConn for the Pac-12 as Sadie Edwards transferred to USC after playing six games during the 2014-15 season. Edwards averaged 11.3 points in 22 games after becoming eligible following her transfer. Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams remain from the recruiting class although Natalie Butler is also a part of the rising junior class.