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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stokes steps up for UConn

If there was one image from last night's dissection of Kansas State which figures to stay with me it was probably the jubilant reception freshman Kiah Stokes received as she checked out of the NCAA second round game for the final time.

Stokes received some words of congratulations from her coaches and then her teammates were waiting smiling from ear to ear. Perhaps nobody, other than Stokes, was more ecstatic than Tiffany Hayes who jumped into the air to exchange a chest bump with Stokes.

Stokes finished with 13 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots in 18 minutes in UConn's 72-26 victory. It was the type of performance and level of energy that the Connecticut coaches have been trying to get from Stokes since the first official practice in mid-October.

"I was really excited and when I came over," Stokes said, "(Assistant coach) Marisa Moseley said 'great job Kiah.' Just the reaction of my teammates was amazing, it was great to know they were in this supporting me as well and I am glad I was able to give that to them as well."

Stokes' up and down freshman season has been well documented. For every game like her 11-point, 11-rebound effort against North Carolina or 12-rebound, 5-block outing against Duke, there have been times when her lackluster practices resulted in her not playing at all in two games and being limited to fewer than five minutes in four others.

However, Stokes seems to have learned the lessons courtesy of the tough love from the UConn coaches as she averaged 9.5 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in the two NCAA tournament games in Bridgeport.

"It feels good, it makes everything worth it all the coaches yelling at me, all the extra sprints and all that stuff makes it worth it," Stokes said.

Getting UConn coach Geno Auriemma to throw compliments Stokes' way has not been the easiest of chores this season but that changed following Monday's game.

"When I said going into the season and into the tournament that Kiah Stokes is going to be a factor in how far we go people said he is just saying that to get them riled up and all of that," Auriemma said. "But it is obvious when you watch her play like that and we can play with two big guys we are a whole different team. I think she had two three-point plays (against Kansas State), I don't think she's had that many all year so she is trying and that is all I have asked of Kiah, just try harder, work harder, bring a little more (passion) to the game. (Monday) she did and look what happened."

Auriemma's take on the Hallmark moment of a reception she received from her teammates was classic Geno.

"I think once they got over the initial shock of it ... I think somebody showed them the stat sheet and once that happened they were genuinely excited for her. You would not believe how many kids on this team would kill to have a body like that, to look like that. (Assistant coach) Shea Ralph said the same thing, it was like she was built to play basketball and all you want is (for her) to use those God-given gifts and come out and dominate a game. They know how important she is to us. Those kids are not stupid, they know if she plays like this every single night we are a whole different team. We are not going to win a national championship playing the way we did at Marquette with our tallest guy being 5-11 or 6-foot so this was maybe the best thing that could have happened for Kiah Stokes and for our team."

The veteran UConn players agreed with Auriemma.

"I think she has grown the most of anybody on the team and for her to come out during tournament time and play the way she did, we are excited for her," junior guard Caroline Doty said. "It's been tough for anybody coming in not knowing what to expect as a freshman, take all the challenges being thrown at you. For her to be able to do as great as she has, it is awesome to see her get the blocked shots, doing the great things she is doing."

Speaking of the blocked shots, she passed teammate Stefanie Dolson for fifth place on UConn's blocked shots list as a freshman. Dolson had 46 blocked shots while Stokes has 47.

I don't have any individual stats but UConn signee Moriah Jefferson and the five-time defending champion THESA Riders opened play in the National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championships with a 79-41 win over Team USA White on Monday. The Riders are facing the Knoxville Ambassadors as we speak in the second and final game in pool play.

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