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.