Blogs > Elm City to Eagleville

A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Is UConn's dominance a blessing or curse for rest of AAC

Over the years I have been able to see the positive side of UConn's blowout victories as the Huskies use those contests to lay the foundation for national-championship run.

However, since I also cover the UConn football team, I have seen a different side of the ledger. I've seen the confidence of a team and players damaged following a disappointing performance. With all of that being said I spent a decent amount of time at yesterday's American Athletic Conference women's basketball media day checking in with other coaches to see if there is a down side to having the nation's most dominant women's basketball program in the same conference.

Let's start with a look back at last year. With Louisville now in the ACC and Rutgers in the Big 12 UConn is one of eight returning teams from the inaugural AAC season and the margin of victory for the Huskies against its conference foes was a staggering 38 points.

"I think everybody understands that they are UConn and that is where you are trying to reach and get to that level so making sure your kids understand that there is a competition," said Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, a former UConn assistant coach. "So many years of being there so many teams would lose before they stepped on the floor because it was UConn now people are trying to get their kids to understand that just go out, compete and see what happens. Obviously he has done a great job getting talented players but hopefully that margin drops a little bit."

Although Memphis lost to UConn by 41 points, the Tigers led the Huskies for nearly 4 1/2 minutes when the teams met last season in Memphis and that is something that Tigers' coach Melissa McFerrin believes she can use in her team's growth.

"We don't wear it as a badge of honor but at the FedEx Forum with 12 minutes gone we held the lead," McFerrin said. "We have to take it as let's continue to grow those minutes.

"I think you go right at a team like UConn, you go straight at your team saying this team is going to run you off the court if you don't show up and play. I think for a short amount of time our team was able to react to that. They were excited, we were fired up and we were not trying to be cautious in the early part of that game, we were trying to play our game as well as UConn would let us do it."

Memphis lost in overtime in the next game but then won its next three games so the Tigers were able to not let the bitter taste of the blowout loss linger.

"You can't have emotional baggage in this game or this conference will chew you up and spit you up," McFerrin said. "You can't be fragile in this conference and you can't assume anything because any game you can either win big or get one put on you, get embarrassed."

Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott, a member of national-championship teams at UConn as a player and a coach, has a similar philosophy to McFerrin when it comes to the UConn games.

"I just look at small victories, we held Stefanie Dolson and Breanna Stewart under 10 points, I believe in that game (actually Stewart had 12 points and Dolson seven in a 63-34 UConn win). If it wasn't under 10 it was way under their season average so that is a small victory we pointed out after the game or holding them under their points per game average so you look for little, different things. You don't go into games saying 'if you do this you are going to beat UConn.' We have offensive goals, defensive goals that we know is realistic to accomplish.

"I have been very fortunate, I don't know if my players get up extra for that game because of my affiliation with UConn but I have never had problem with their confidence going into the game or getting beat before the ball goes up and leaving the game like we lost everything we had tried to accomplish up to that point."

When the AAC preseason poll came out South Florida was picked to finish second and East Carolina came in at No. 3 so how do the coaches of those teams address the shadow that the Huskies figure to cast on the league this season.

"If I don't wake up every day with my goal being 'I want to beat Connecticut' I am doing my kids a disservice," USF coach Jose Fernandez said. "You are chasing the dragon every day and I am going keep trying until I catch it. (The losses are)not because of how we are working recruiting wise or on the floor."

East Carolina will be introduced to life as a UConn opponent on New Year's Eve.
"Happy New Year," East Carolina coach Heather Macy said with a laugh. "UConn always has a great draw and look what they have built there. When I look at the job Geno has done there, it is something I respect and go wow, it is going to be a great opportunity for our fans and our players to experience. If you want to be a nationally recognized program, you better go ahead and play the top teams and see what that gap is. It is a really good measuring stick."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

UConn's game at Colgate was news to Breanna Stewart

As I reported on Tuesday, UConn signed a contract to play at Colgate next season so that Breanna Stewart could play a game close to her home.

Well, when I asked her about having a game set up so friends and family could see her play within an hour of her Syracuse home, she admitted it was the first she was hearing about it.

"I didn't know about that," Stewart said. "Obviously not to look ahead but it will be neat to have a game like that where people can see you play your senior year."

It was not an easy task for UConn to find a game for Stewart which is nothing new as the Huskies had the same problem trying to secure a homecoming game for Maya Moore.

"Ultimately you would it to be in her hometown but it is getting harder and harder to pull that stuff off," Auriemma said. "Teams are less inclined to bring back a player that they thought they should have gotten, they are going to come and play in your gym against you. That is just the world that has been created. I think it will be good for it is kind of like playing at the University of Hartford last year. You go in and it is a small gym, it is kind of different from what you are used to, score some points with our President (Susan Herbst) because her brother is the president at Colgate."

So has Auriemma had a conversation with Herbst about getting the Colgate contract signed?

"No but she will mention something if we don't play well and lose."

The winners here will be the folks at Colgate. Last year 12 home games drew a total of 5,471 fans. Cotterell Court holds 1,760 or 3,000 depending on where on the Colgate site you look. Needless to say that the game, expected to be played around Thanksgiving, will be one of the largest home women's basketball crowds in Colgate's history.

UConn's Chong, Temple's Atkinson opening eyes

Four players, all expected to have pivotal roles in the UConn women's basketball team's bid for a third straight national title, accompanied Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma to Thursday's American Athletic Conference media day at the New York Athletic Club.

However, it wasn't reigning national player of the year Breanna Stewart, former All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, standout point guard Moriah Jefferson or underrated center Kiah Stokes who received the most praise from Auriemma.

Sophomore guard Saniya Chong, who failed to score in nine of her last 16 games during her inconsistent freshman season, has been downright spectacular in the first couple weeks of practice according to Auriemma.

"In the first eight or nine practices, Saniya’s been the best player we’ve had," Auriemma said.

"She just really goes, she is playing at a really high level. She is playing like she did in November of last year even better. It was a struggle last year to get her motor going at top speed.

So does Auriemma credit Chong's improved play to the fact that UConn added four talented freshmen who could keep from starting or playing a significant role?

"I think it is just growing up," Auriemma said. "I think she was a little immature last year. I think being away from home, you are the only freshmen and these kids are spoiled rotten, They are not just spoiled by basketball but they are spoiled by their parents so when they get there and nothing is easy and every little thing that they do is 'what the hell is that?' They lose their mind."

During the post-game celebration after UConn topped rival Notre Dame in the national championship game Jefferson leaned over to Chong and told her that the 2014-15 season was going to be hers to shine.

"I talked to her last year so I knew she was going to come in and do that stuff," Jefferson said. "You could tell that she was struggling with some of the same stuff I did (as a freshman).

"We lost Bria (Hartley) at the 2 guard position and she is just feeling it right now."


Chong wasn't the only young guard to draw words of praise at media day.

Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, a former UConn assistant coach, was able to secure a commitment from former Career High star Tanaya Atkinson. It hasn't taken long for the New Haven native to make her presence felt.

"She is doing amazing right now," Cardoza said. "She is somebody we are going to count on. Right now I am thinking of starting her, that is how well she is doing because I think she is capable of helping us in so many ways. She is going to be one of those players that in a few years she is going to leave her mark on Temple.

"She is a big guard and we haven't had a lot of big guards, she can get to the basket, she is physical, quick, athletic, can jump, she has a toughness about her. She can play both ends, she can play multiple guard positions."

Cardoza loves how Atkinson is responding to the demands placed on her by the Owls' coaching staff.
"I am hard on her because I know she has a talent and she is embracing it," Cardoza said. "She wants to hear everything, she doesn't want to disappoint me and I love that in a player."

A couple of events that proved that there are things more important than the pursuit of championships have warmed the heart of Auriemma and his players.

UConn, like so many programs across the nation, have tried to help out in the courageous and selfless acts of Mount St. Joseph sophomore Lauren Hill, who has brain cancer and is not only waging a fight for her life but looking to raise awareness while raising money for cancer research.

UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey got the UConn team to donate signed items to aid in the cause.

"Our guys were all genuinely touched by it," Auriemma said.

"I had heard about it. CD (Dailey) brought it to my attention and I saw that they did a story on it. Unbelievable, I couldn't even imagine. You see something like that and it really makes you sad and heartbreaking for her and her family.

"People are always looking for stories that make them feel better, stories that you normally have to deal with involve either winning or losing, four hours or why they won or why they lose or something that somebody did that was so stupid that you have to spend three hours on this particular thing. You don't get too many of those stories and when they come out everybody rallies around them because it is an unbelievable story. When you get to know the human being behind it, we all want to feel a part of it because it you are a part of it that is makes your feel better."

Closer to home, Auriemma still gets chills when he called that 2009 day when UConn football star Jasper Howard was stabbed to death on campus.

In the last couple of years Dan and Lisa Lowry have been at the forefront of a movement to have a permanent memorial to Howard at Rentschler Field. Well, that day is almost here as the memorial will be dedicated at halftime of Saturday's game against Central Florida.

"I think I was like anybody else, it came out of nowhere," Auriemma said. "I was not used to that happening so close to home and adding to that a lot of the guys on our team were friends with him, how it affected them and we had to cancel practice. I've never experienced anything like that before or after where something that tragic happens. You go to bed at night after something like that and imagine what they are feeling, his family, my son is playing football and you don't expect that to happen. It is not like you are walking the streets, he is not hanging out with bad people, he is not somewhere where he is not supposed to be. All of a sudden you start thinking 'what about if that was one of my players?' I have three kids in college and what is going on here? It just really knocks you for a loop. I am glad they are doing something. I hope people really take the time pause and remember."

UConn's Stewart dealing with minor foot issue

Reigning national player of the year Breanna Stewart was happy to leave part of her footwear behind when she headed to New York for the American Athletic Conference women's basketball media day.

Stewart has been bothered by soreness in a bone under the ball of her left foot. It hasn't caused her to miss any practice time but she has been wearing a protective boot.

"It is something that has been bothering me in my foot, it is not anything serious,' said Stewart, who was named the AAC's Preseason Player of the Year. "I am in the boot because it takes the pressure off walking on that part of my foot but I am still practicing and going through everything."

Stewart doesn't recall what caused the pain.

"I am not sure if it was practice," Stewart said. "It is hard because the season starts. They said I can play on it so I am going to play on it. It is just a thing where you rehab it, you stay off of it, you are not trying to put as much pressure on it.

"I am in the boot because they think it is smart. It is a precaution and then my left shoe doesn't really get dirty."

UConn picked to win AAC; Stewart and Nurse earn individual honors

Those partial to the pure suspense of preseason poll likely stayed clear of the New York Athletic Club this morning.

With the departure of Louisville and Rutgers, the closest thing the UConn women's basketball program had to rivals in the inaugural American Athletic Conference season, the real question was whether the Huskies would have a conference game decided by fewer than 20 points this season.

Predictably, UConn was picked by the other 10 conference coaches to win the title, reigning national player of the year Breanna Stewart was the unanimous pick to be the AAC Player of the Year while UConn's Kia Nurse was selected as the preseason Freshman of the Year.
Since coaches can't vote for their own team, UConn coach Geno Auriemma cast his first-place ballot for South Florida which was picked to finish second in the league. Newcomer East Carolina was picked to finish third while Temple and Tulane tied for fourth

The seven other American Athletic Conference teams lost to UConn by an average of 38.1 points per game last season with the closest game being a 63-38 win over South Florida on Feb. 16.
Stewart was joined on the first team by teammates Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Moriah Jefferson, Memphis guard Ariel Hearn and South Florida's Courtney Williams, the only other unanimous seletion. UConn senior forward/center Kiah Stokes was a second-team All-AAC selection.

UConn kicks off the conference portion of its schedule on Dec. 27 when the Huskies play Southern Methodist at the XL Center.

Although UConn lost All-Americans Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley off a team which went 40-0 and won a second straight national title, the Huskies return six of their top eight scorers including top point producer Stewart, prolific 3-point shooter Mosqueda-Lewis and assists leader Jefferson.

Here is the preseason poll
Team Points 1. UConn (10) 100
2. USF (1) 91
3. East Carolina 72
T-4. Temple 67
T-4. Tulane 67
6. Memphis 54
7. SMU 52
8. Cincinnati 37
9. Tulsa 28
10. UCF 24
11. Houston 13
First place votes in parenthesis

AAC Preseason Player of the YearBreanna Stewart, UConn
AAC Preseason Freshman of the YearKia Nurse, UConn

Live blog off American Athletic Conference media day

There will be a live blog running off today's American Athletic Conference media day. The preseason poll and individual awards will be released at 10 a.m. but for those who don't want to wait, the Temple official website didn't honor the embargo on the release and put it up yesterday. It looks like it has since been taken down but sure it could be found for those not wishing to wait a couple of hours.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Contract signed for homecoming game for UConn's Stewart

It hasn't always been the easiest of chores to get homecoming games for UConn's superstars but the Huskies have a signed contract to play Colgate next season with the same expected to be played right around Thanksgiving.

Colgate, located about 45 miles from Stewart's home in Syracuse, is coming off an 8-22 season. The Red Raiders are coached by former DePaul assistant coach Nicci Hays Fort while 2012 UConn graduate Justin Paluch is an assistant at Colgate,

Classmate Moriah Jefferson won't have a specific homecoming game scheduled since both SMU and Houston are in the American Athletic Conference and the Huskies have set up a home and home series with DePaul in large part so Morgan Tuck can play in front of friends and family.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

UConn recruiting target Willoughby taking her time

Three prospects from the Class of 2016 visited UConn over the weekend and two of them (guard Crystal Dangerfield and forward Kyla Irwin) committed earlier this week. Obviously that got me thinking it might be a good idea to check in on Jocelyn Willoughby, the other talented high school junior to visit over the weekend.

Well, here's what her high school coach Liz Bona Beach had to say when I reached out to her via email.

"She is early in the process. UConn was a very good visit. She was impressed. It was an important visit that will help her as she goes through the process."

Willoughby, a 6-foot wing, is coming off an outstanding sophomore season at Newark Academy as she averaged 23.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 4.4 steals. She had 10 double-doubles with 20 20-points games, six games with at least 30 points in 26 games. She came one steal shy of a triple-double in a Jan. 30 game against Newark Central.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kyla Irwin commits to UConn

Before Kyla Irwin arrived on campus over the weekend for her unofficial visit to UConn she dreamed of one day suiting up for Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies.

That dream became a reality when she became the second member of the Class of 2016 to commit to UConn.

"It was everything," Irwin said. "It the best of both worlds. It is such a great program; the campus is very nice; the coaches coach just like I like it; I have family in Connecticut and it can't get better than that.

"I am cloud nine and I have never been so happy."

Irwin, a 6-foot-1 junior forward at State College (Pa.) High School, had 13 20-point games and averaged 19.6 points per game. She is a hard-nosed, aggressive player who attempted 150 free throws in 26 games as a sophomore.

"I love this game more than anything," Irwin said. "Every play I am in there, I talk a lot, always excited and always enthusiastic about the game and I think that is kind of what drew coaches to me. I know this game inside and out so I think i have been around this game long enough that it is the only game I really ever loved."

UConn began showing up at her AAU games and although she was unable to make it up for First Night, she was on campus later in the weekend.

"It is something I have always dreamed of. I literally dreamed of it so I know I made the right decision," Irwin said.

Irwin is coached by her mom, a former Branford High School star who played at Penn State. While the former Bethany Collins remained in State College, the rest of her family remained in Connecticut so there will be a large caravan with her supporters from Branford to Storrs when Irwin gets to UConn.

SNY to televise 17 UConn games

SNY announced its broadcast schedule for the upcoming UConn women's basketball season.

The first of the 17 games being televised is the Nov. 23 game against Creighton. SNY will also air all three games in the Gulf Coast Showcase while the Dec, 19 game against DePaul is another highlight.

Here's the list of games being televised by UConn's regional television partner.

With that part of the schedule released that means the only the Nov. 14 season opener against UC Davis will not be on television as it will streamed live exclusively on ESPN3 and through the ESPN app. The two exhibition games will also not be televised.

Sun. 23 CREIGHTON Gampel Pavilion, 1 p.m.
Fri. 28 College of Charleston  8:30 p.m.
Sat. 29 Minnesota or Vanderbilt 
Sun. 30 vs. TBA 
Fri. 19 DEPAUL Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport 7:30 p.m.
Sat. 27 SMU XL Center 1 p.m.
Wed. 31 at East Carolina Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum, Greenville, N.C. 2:30 p.m.
Wed. 7 TULSA XL Center 7 p.m.
Sun. 11 at SMU Moody Coliseum, Dallas 3 p.m.
Wed. 14 TEMPLE Gampel Pavilion 7 p.m.
Wed. 21 at UCF CFE Arena, Orlando, Fla.  7 p.m.
Wed. 28 EAST CAROLINA XL Center 7 p.m.
Tue. 3 CINCINNATI XL Center 7 p.m.
Sat. 7 at Memphis FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.  3:30 p.m.
Tue. 17 HOUSTON XL Center 7 p.m.
Sat. 21 at Tulsa Reynolds Center, Tulsa, Okla. 3 p.m.
Mon. 23 at Tulane Devlin Fieldhouse, New Orleans, La.  8 p.m.

Here's the full schedule with TV information

Date Opponent Site TV Time
Sun. 2 WEST CHESTER (exhib.) Gampel 1 p.m.
Sun. 9 POST (exhib.) XL Center 4:30 p.m.
Fri. 14 at UC Davis The Pavilion, Davis, Calif. ESPN3 10 p.m.
Mon. 17 at Stanford Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto, Calif. ESPN2 9 p.m.
Sun. 23 CREIGHTON Gampel SNY 1 p.m.
Fri. 28 College of Charleston SNY 8:30 p.m.
Sat. 29 Minnesota or Vanderbilt SNY 2:30 or 8:30 p.m.
Sun. 30 vs. TBA SNY
Sat. 6 at Notre Dame ESPN 3:15 p.m.
Fri. 19 DEPAUL Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, Conn. SNY 7:30 p.m.
Sun. 21 vs. UCLA ESPN2 5 p.m.
Sat. 27 SMU XL Center SNY 1 p.m.
Mon. 29 DUKE XL Center ESPN2 9 p.m.
Wed. 31 at East Carolina SNY 2:30 p.m.
Sun. 4 at St. John’s ESPN2 1 p.m.
Wed. 7 TULSA XL Center SNY 7 p.m.
Sun. 11 at SMU SNY 3 p.m.
Wed. 14 TEMPLE Gampel SNY 7 p.m.
Sun. 18 USF Gampel ESPN2 1 p.m.
Wed. 21 at UCF SNY 7 p.m.
Sun. 25 at Cincinnati ESPN2 3 p.m.
Wed. 28 EAST CAROLINA XL Center SNY 7 p.m.
Sun. 1 at Temple ESPN2 2 p.m.
Tue. 3 CINCINNATI XL Center SNY 7 p.m.
Sat. 7 at Memphis SNY 3:30 p.m.
Mon. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA Gampel ESPN2 8 p.m.
Sat. 14 TULANE Gampel CBS SN 4 p.m.
Tue. 17 HOUSTON XL Center SNY 7 p.m.
Sat. 21 at Tulsa SNY 3 p.m.
Mon. 23 at Tulane SNY 8 p.m.
Sat. 28 MEMPHIS Gampel CBS SN 2 p.m.
Mon. 2 at USF Sun Dome, Tampa, Fla. ESPN2 7 p.m.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Add a new name to UConn's Class of 2016 recruiting targets

I have a hunch that the recruitment of the Class of 2016 is going to be one of the interesting processes to follow with the first commitment coming out of Tennessee and UConn having its eyes on multiple players from Texas and California which is always a challenging proposition getting those players to come to Connecticut.

With Geno Auriemma away at some key periods in the recruiting process due to his national team coaching commitment he sped up the process of identifying the players in the class who he thinks could be a good fit. It's already paid off with the commitment of top guard Crystal Dangerfield.

There are plenty of guards and wings on UConn's radar but getting a post player is a major priority. Well, they don't come much bigger than a new recruiting target as Auriemma and his staff have been in contact with 6-foot-9 Nigerian Felicia Aiyeotan, a junior at Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia.

Aiyeotan, who plays for the powerhouse Philadelphia Belles AAU program, visited Kentucky over the weekend and Santarelli said UConn, Notre Dame, Penn State and USC are among the major programs taking a look at Aiyeotan.

Santarelli said Aiyeotan runs the floor well, catches the ball well, has an outstanding drop step and has a tremendous upside.

Both her high school and AAU coaches said Aiyeotan, who has only been playing organized basketball for a couple of years, has made tremendous strides over the last several months.

Santarelli said the interest from UConn is relatively new and they haven't been down yet to check her out in an open gym and that the recruiting process is just starting to pick up and there is no date planned for her to come to UConn for a visit yet but she is definitely a name I'll be keeping an eye on.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rival coach: UConn commit Dangerfield "a one-man press breaker"

Now that UConn has its first commitment in the Class of 2016 it is time to try to quantify what type of player the Huskies will be getting.

I watched a highlight tape of Crystal Dangerfield playing at Blackman High in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and she looked so much like Moriah Jefferson did when the current UConn point guard was lighting it up for the THESA Raiders it is eerie. But I wanted somebody with more basketball knowledge than me to give me a take on Dangerfield.

Well, Blackman High School lost just one game during Dangerfield's sophomore season and the defeat was at the hands of Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis (whose best player is UConn Class of 2015 commit Napheesa Collier) so I spoke to IWA head coach Dan Rolfes tonight to get his impressions of Dangerfield since the teams split highly-competitive games a season ago.

"I remember her very well," Rolfes said. "Just like a super quick, super fast athletic point guard. In the game that we lost, we got down and we are a very athletic team but we could not press her. She is just a one-man press breaker."

Does he think she has similar potential as Jefferson did coming out of high school?

"No doubt about it. She has a great jumper, she has a jumper like a guy, a legit jumper. She can dribble penetrate and pull up in the paint."

Dangerfield's commitment gives UConn a head start on what could be a challenging recruiting year. The Huskies have a top-notch group of freshmen in Sadie Edwards, Courtney Ekmark, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams. I've spoken to more than one women's basketball insider who believe the next batch of recruits (Collier, De;Janae Boykin and Katie Lou Samuelson) has the potential to rival one of UConn coach Geno Auriemma's most talented classes. Historically, it has been a challenge to secure commitments from elite players following a class like the one the Huskies have coming in next year so to get a top five national recruit like Dangerfield is a major bonus.

"He just gets great athletes with skill," Rolfes said. "You look at the balance they they've got. You have kind of a do it all in Napheesa Collier, you have a crazy fast athletic point guard, Katie Lou can shoot lights out and you size and you have another big post player in De'Janae."

As for Collier, Incarnate Word Academy starts practice on Nov. 3 and kick off the season in the Tour of Champions in Fort Smith, Arkansas from Dec. 11-13. Unfortunately there aren't any Blackman/Incarnate Word Academy games on the 2014-15 schedule. The first game for Blackman is Nov. 25 against fellow Tennessee school William Blount although Blackman coach Chad Hibdon said he is still searching for a mid-November game after one of the scheduled games was recently canceled.

Hibdon called UConn "a great fit" for Dangerfield.

"She is driven and determined for excellence in everything she does, Hibdon said. "UConn has high standards in academics and in the athletic arena and that firs will with her personality traits.

"Crystal is unbelievably talented and doesn't have to dominate the ball. She understands the team concept. She can shoot it and score and understands how to lead the team to success."

Blackman begins practice on Oct. 27.

I'm very curious to see what UConn's Class of 2016 is going to look like when all is said and done. The Huskies are involved with some elite prospects including Lauren Cox, considered by just about everybody to be the best player in the Class, Joyner Holmes, Natalie Chou, Jaelyn Brown, Tori McCoy and Sabrina Ionescu who could all be top 10 national recruits before the 2015 early signing period gets here. UConn is also very high on Jocelyn Willoughby, one of the first night visitors out of Newark Academy. I happened to be up at UConn this afternoon working on a football story and State College (Pa.) junior Kyla Irwin was up there with her family. I let her, her family and the UConn coaches do their thing without interruption but the whole group seemed to be having the time of their lives. Kelly Jekot is another high scoring Pennsylvania wing who has visited UConn. I also have seen reports that Michigan wing Kysre Gondrezick included UConn among her final seven schools.

Crystal Dangerfield commits to UConn

UConn received its first commitment from the Class of 2016 when guard Crystal Dangerfield committed while on a visit this weekend including being in attendance at First Night festivities on Friday.

She announced her decision on her Twitter account

Blessed to be able to say that I committed to UConn this weekend #BleedBlue ❗️❄️

When I went out to Colorado Springs for the U-17 and U-18 national team trials I spoke the Dangerfield, a 5-foot-5 guard from Murfreesboro, Tennessee who is ironically most often compared to current UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson, who she could ultimately end up replacing at UConn.

She admitted that Jefferson is her favorite women's player. 

"Her tenacity is something I look at. I just emulate her."

She still recalls a conversation she had with Geno Auriemma.

"My high school coach is telling me that they want me to call and I talked to Geno, we had a conversation. Three minutes into it my hands were sweating, I was star struck. It was a fun sit down, it was my first time sitting down to talk to a college coach so that was fun."

Dangerfield, considered to be one of the top players in the Class of 2016, helped her Blackman team finish No. 1 in the USA Today final national poll. Blackman, also featuring Tennessee commit MeMe Jackson and Middle Tennessee State pledge Alex Johnson, figures to be one of the nation's top teams again this season.

Dangerfield was a member of the 2013 U-16 national team where she was a teammate of UConn Class of 2015 commits De'Janae Boykin (who was also at First Night) and Katie Lou Samuelson. Dangerfield started two of the five games in the FIBA Americas U16 Championships, averaging 7 points per game to go with nine assists and seven steals. She also was 7 of 12 from 3-point range in the tournament.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

UConn's Stokes delivers from long range

All of her teammates had long since finished with their media responsibilities following Wednesday's opening practice when reigning national player of the year Breanna Stewart was fielding her final few inquiries.

There was a sense of glee in Stewart's voice when she spoke about the offensive potential of the player most likely to be the Huskies' starting center this season.

"I don't think any of you have ever seen her (make a 3-pointer)," Stewart said.

Well, that is no longer the case.

Of the seven field goals made by the women's players in last night's First Night scrimmage, four of them were 3-pointers. It was hardly a shocker to see Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, perhaps the best 3-point shooter in the country, hit one. Morgan Tuck made seven in the eight games she played a season ago and eight of the 12 shots Tierney Lawlor as a freshmen came from behind the 3-point line so it was not a stunning revelation that they also made one. However, Stokes confidently attempted a pair of 3-pointers last night, one went in and one was off the target.

In 107 career games Stokes has attempted 276 shots, all of them from inside the 3-point line. However, during shooting drills at Wednesday's practice Stokes was hitting from downtown with as much regularity as any other player.

She doesn't plan on challenging Mosqueda-Lewis for the team lead in 3-pointers this season but said don't be stunned when you see her firing away from the perimeter.

"I always shoot 3s but consistency is the next step," Stokes said. "It is just another thing to add. I want to be a post player first but I want to have more options and I don't want to be limited to being just scoring inside."

There were five recruits at First Night. De'Janae Boykin was the only one already committed but don't look for any quick commitments from the other four (juniors Crystal Dangerfield and Jocelyn Willoughby and sophomores Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Megan Walker). They did make it onto the court for some quick dancing before the event started but were sitting too far from me to get a sense of how much they enjoyed themselves, However, I couldn't imagine any recruit not having the time of their lives at an event like last night's.

One last recruiting item, don't look for a future Husky to play in the HoopHall Classic held each January in Springfield. Event organizers try to have one game featuring a potential UConn recruit but I reached out Greg Procino, the Director of Events and Awards at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and he said attempts to set up a game with a UConn recruit did not work out and the only game featuring teams outside the Springfield area is one with Maryland commit Kiah Gillespie's Capital Prep team squaring off with Oregon powerhouse South Medford High, Capital Prep also features junior guard Desiree Elmore, who committed to Syracuse earlier this week while South Medford's top players include senior Keyari Sleezer and junior Julissa Tago.

Friday, October 17, 2014

This was one night to remember at UConn

There used to be a time when fans would show up several hours beforehand on the day of the annual basketball fan fest now known as First Night.

There was a dip in the interest which was obviously noticed at UConn because those responsible for athletic marketing obviously put in a lot of work in preparing for this year's event.

There was a lot to work with since both teams are coming off winning national championships and ESPN was in the house. However, the people at UConn deserve tons of credit for putting their thinking caps on because this was as good of a First Night/SuperShow/Midnight Madness event as I can remember (and I came to my first one of these 15 years ago).

It started with the dedication of the basketball practice facility named the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center. Then there was the always popular autograph signing session.

Once First Night began UConn paid homage to its championship pedigree having a member of a title-winning squad walk each of the 13 national championship trophies onto the court. The appearance of UConn legends like Ray Allen and Sue Bird certainly added some energy to the evening's festivities.

Then came the brilliant idea of unveiling both national championship banners.

Last year have the men's and women's teams take part in a mixed-gender scrimmage was a hit and it was a fitting end to the event with Team Geno edging Team Kevin 38-37.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck each hit 3-pointers for Team Geno while Kia Nurse had four points and Moriah Jefferson an unforgettable assist to Rodney Purvis with an alley oop for Team Kevin.

"They work so hard and I know it is extra special for them because they were underdogs," UConn senior center Kiah Stokes said. It is fun to celebrate with them because we both (won titles),

"It is great to have a great fan base, it is one thing to play in front of fans that have to drive in but when you have the local kids on campus that come to campus, it is just amazing. I think they are the best fans in the country, some schools might disagree but they support us whether we win or lose."

Another bonus was having freshman Gabby Williams, who saw her junior and senior seasons of high school end prematurely due to torn ACLs, taking part in the scrimmage - her first full 5 on 5 action since arriving on campus.

"There is no more thinking anymore, no more worrying," Williams said, "I am just out here having fun."

Rosters set for UConn's First Night festivities

After a balloting via social media UConn announced the breakdown of the teams for tonight's scrimmage.

Team Kevin will feature women's players Natalie Butler, Moriah Jefferson, Kia Nurse, Kiah Stokes, Breanna Stewart and Tierney Lawlor playing alongside Omar Calhoun, Kentan Facey, Pat Lenehan, Rodney Purvis, Phil Nolan and Terrence Samuel. The women's players on Team Geno are Saniya Chong, Sadie Edwards, Courtney Ekmark, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Briana Pulido, Morgan Tuck and Gabby Williams. They will be joined by men's players Nnamdi Amilo, Ryan Boatright, Amida Brimah, Sam Cassell Jr., Daniel Hamilton and Rakim Lubin.

Doors at Gampel Pavilion open at 5 p.m. with an autograph session with players from both teams as well as both head coaches running from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The event kicks off at 7 p.m. There will be a 3-point shooting contest as well although the highlight figures to be the unveiling of the national championship banners as well as the pomp and circumstance as UConn looks back on the combined 13 national championship the two programs have won.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

UConn's freshmen excited to get rolling

One of the highlights of UConn's early season practices is seeing how the freshmen get acclimated.

It wasn't that big of a deal last year with Saniya Chong the only new scholarship player but yesterday was the introduction of freshmen Sadie Edwards, Courtney Ekmark, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams as well as transfer Natalie Butler.

I consider this group to be one of the more intriguing collection of newcomers since I have been covering the team.

You have Edwards, the Meriden native who spent a season playing in New York and two more at Blair Academy in New Jersey. Butler is a rebounding machine and a rare transfer into the program. Ekmark made the unusual decision to bypass her senior season of high school and had a variety of different basketball experiences over the last year. Nurse's experience with the Canadian national team has been well documented and then there is Williams, a top five finisher in the high jump at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials who saw her final two high school seasons end prematurely due to torn ACLs.

All five were out there early and often during the portion of practice the media was allowed to watch. There were nervous moments as they attempted to learn the different drills, absorb the coaching from Geno Auriemma and his staff as well as the encouragement they were getting from their more experienced teammates.

"It was tough in the beginning but we kind of caught on," Nurse said. "It was something we were excited to be a part of."

Ekmark echoed her classmate and roommate's take on her first official practice as a Husky.

"It is awesome," Ekmark said. "Obviously we are fired up and excited for our first college practice, it was good, it was fun. It was a different level of intensity for all of us because it is a different jump from high school to college.

"Moriah (Jefferson) and Kaleena (Mosqueda-Lewis) are really helpful. I know to me I can talk to them if I ever need help with anything and I can ask them  so it is really nice to have them here and it is fun playing with them also."

Nurse is grateful to have leaders like Jefferson and Mosqueda-Lewis to help show her the way.

"They are great leaders," Nurse said, "They give us everything we need to know and we are never surprised with anything thanks to them. They are great basketball players, have great basketball IQs and we just learn from them every day."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said one of the points of emphasis with the newcomers is to have them make shots. With a grueling preseason conditioning program and the way the challenging practices take a toll on them, they are going to have to learn how to fight through the fatigue.

"Everything is new right now so we are learning a lot of new stuff," Ekmark said. "We are trying to keep our legs on our shots but you have to keep shooting."

Nurse just recently got back to campus after spending most of the summer with the Canadian national team. It was time well spent as Nurse was a starting guard on a team which finished fifth in the FIBA World Championship for Women.

"I feel great," Nurse said, "I got a couple days off when I came back. Your body can only take so much and my body got used to playing for a long time all the time so I am lucky to have the staff here that help you rehab everything."

One of the biggest concerns was going to be if Nurse fell too far behind academically due to all the class time she missed while she was overseas. Turns out there was no cause for concern.

"I caught up," Nurse said, "The teachers have been really great and my room was spotless due to Courtney, she kept it clean. Everybody has been really great, the academics center, everybody has worked really hard and I am really grateful for them."

It's looking like the rosters for tomorrow night's scrimmage will not be announced until tomorrow morning so stay tuned. By the sounds of it, UConn is putting together quite the program to pay homage to its championship pedigree. More details will be coming out in the next 18 hours although Wener Ladder announced it will be presenting the ladders the men's and women's teams used to cut down the nets after winning the national titles in April.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UConn's Tuck thrilled to be back

Not every college kid has the same definition of what constitutes a fun time.

In the eyes of UConn redshirt sophomore forward Morgan Tuck, it was hard to top the experience of several days in a boot camp style training camp with some local Marines and then today's marathon opening day practice until the watchful eye of UConn Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma.

"I was really excited when I woke up this morning," Tuck said. "I was in class ready for practice, it feels really good. I am able to practice so it was a long time coming.

"I am trying to give them a full season. I don't want to sit out of practice. I am feeling really good and my knee doesn't bother me so it is going well."

Tuck made the difficult decision to undergo surgery not long after scoring a season-high 19 points in a Jan. 7, 2014 win over Houston. Tuck had the difficult decision to pull the plug on the season or lose a season of eligibility. She opted to undergo the surgery.

"Now that I look back on it, maybe it was a Godsend," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Maybe it was the best thing that ever happened because she looks great."

Tuck said that the time she was sidelined helped with the way she approaches the game.
"I think I learned how to read things better," Tuck said. "When you are out you see things that you don't see on the court because you are worried about all the other things going on so I think watching has give me a new perspective especially when the coaches are asking something of us."

Tuck was cleared to practice fully a couple weeks back. It was right in time for her to join her teammates for some rather arduous workouts with local Marines.

"It was very difficult. It went really well with what coach tries to teach us," Tuck said. "Last year at the Final Four we had some Marines come visit and to be able to work out with them this preseason, I think it was really great. It was hard, some of those (drills) things were some of things I have ever done,

"We had to push through a lot. Some of the younger players, they might not have to push that hard before but they had it in preseason so when we come to the season it shouldn't be as much of a shock to them when you have push through being dead tired and having to encourage each other."

Freshman Gabby Williams, who had each of her last two high school seasons ended by torn ACLs, was also able to practice without restriction on Wednesday.

"She was good today," Auriemma said of Williams. "She went through the whole practice. Every time I looked over Rosemary (Ragle, UConn's athletic trainer) was on her knees with her fingers crossed, holding a lucky rabbit or something but I kept saying 'what do you think? She is great, she said she feels great.'"

UConn is expected to have De'Janae Boykin, one of three players from the Class of 2015 committed to play for the Huskies, top Class of 2016 recruiting targets Crystal Dangerfield and Jocelyn Willoughby as well as Class of 2017 prospects Megan Walker, considered to be the top player in her class, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, a former high school teammate of current Huskies Saniya Chong and Sadie Edwards as Friday's First Night festivities.

UConn freshman guard Kia Nurse admitted she stayed up a little later than normal on Tuesday so she could check out her brother Darnell making his debut with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.

Nurse, a defenseman, played 18:04, finished with two shots and two hits in the 5-1 loss to Los Angeles.

"He was pumped for playing this game," Kia Nurse said. "I was watching, staying up a little bit later watching online. To see him out there living his dreams, he is such a great kid, he deserves everything he has gotten. I was happy for him and he was really excited."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Geno said UConn's Stewart "got an education" playing with national team

Tomorrow when UConn has its first official practice of the 2014-15, it will give Geno Auriemma time to work with the member of the two-time national champions.

However, one player who has received plenty of tutelage from Auriemma this summer has been All-American Breanna Stewart who was a member of the Auriemma-coached U.S. team which won the FIBA World Championship for Women.

"She certainly got an education not just internationally because she has done that, but a lot time she has played up a year or two but she is playing up 10 years and it is a whole different world and she needs a lot of minutes (to get into a rhthym)," Auriemma said. "She is not going to come in and have a huge impact right away, those other teams she played on she played 25-30 minutes and that wasn't going to happen with her this year. Being around those guys, being at practice, seeing how people work and how they prepare, that is something that is going to help her a lot. She knows know that if I want to make the Olympic team that I need to make some strides and that is good for her."

Auriemma returned from the world championship on Monday and came in the next day to get some work done. He hasn't had much time to recover before diving headlong into preparations for the upcoming season.

"Not a lot of down time," Auriemma said before reflecting on winning the gold medal at the FIBA Worlds for the second straight time. "It is not getting any easier. We beat Australia (in the semifinals) and they didn't have Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage, they would have been an entirely different team if they had those two. We are going to have to figure some things out about the Olympics, how we spend our time together, how we do pick our team a little bit earlier. We are late, we are always late picking our team."

As for his UConn players, he said he considers Morgan Tuck "as if she is 100 percent, no issues."

"Morgan has been doing everything everybody else has been doing, Gabby (Williams) has been doing everything but play 5 on 5. She played 2 on 2, 3 on 3 and done a whole lot of stuff. I don't know how much she is going to do starting tomorrow."

Auriemma also said that Moriah Jefferson has been dealing with a hamstring issue keeping her out of individual drills for about a week but "she is back."

As for the newcomers, he had plenty of praise for transfer Natalie Butler.

"She is an intense kid. She is a hard-working kid and she wants to be really good. The basketball part is going to take a little while because it is a whole other level from a basketball standpoint. She has really embraced the conditioning part and that is what we want her to do. She will get better at practice just by going to practice all the time and do things she didn't have a chance to do when she was at Georgetown. You can tell she is going to be a good player."

A season ago Saniya Chong was the only scholarship freshman but this year UConn has Sadie Edwards, Courtney Ekmark, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams as well as Butler, who is a sophomore but will have to sit out this season after transferring from Georgetown.

"That is just the way of the world," Auriemma said. "I think everybody is excited about the freshmen except the coaches and the upperclassmen because all they do is screw up every drill so I would like for them to show us their competitiveness. I don't think they are going to show us that they are ready to win us a national championship for us because that is not feasible, I do't think but it is going to be more about how competitive they are, how do they acclimate themselves to the pace of playing college basketball. I think our coaches have their hands full because we had Saniya and that was just one last year so it was easy to just (work her in). Now you have four plus Natalie who is not playing but a lot of players at practice who don't know anything about what we are doing and it is going to take a lot of time."

Auriemma likes what he has seen from senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

"I think she has built on the success she had in the NCAA tournament," Auriemma said, "I think a lot of people probably overlooked her going into the NCAA tournament with the attention being on everybody else and she had a great NCAA tournament and she has picked up where that left off. It was a long summer, she put a lot of time in, a lot of effort and she is moving better than she has in a long time and she is getting things done that she struggled with a little bit at the beginning of last season. For what I have seen she looks really good."

UConn celebrating its dual national championships side by side

Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma stood just a few inches apart inside an office inside the Oakdale Theater on a night when UConn's dual national championship were being celebrated in front of 450 donors and loyal fans. It will be a familiar site as the two will be on center stage when the new basketball practice facility to dedicated on Friday afternoon and then the national championship banners are unveiled during First Night festivities Friday night.

"The last couple of years I used to be able to walk out on the court either before our practice or after our practice, watch practice," Auriemma said. "Now when we go into this new (Champions Center) building we are all going to practice at the same time all the time so I will probably see less of them than I have the last two years so the fact that we are all in the same building and we are all trying to do the same thing, we are all taking advantage of all of that and what that building has to offer, when you have been there 30 years it is kind of surreal. You can't imagine something like this could happen certainly from when we started. (Friday) night when we raise those banners, we deserve it. No other program in the country has done what the two of us have done over the years and we deserve it. Everything that comes our way we deserve it because we have worked our (butt) off and we deserve it, nobody has given it to us.

"I hope the fans, last year was one of the best turnouts we have ever had and I think this one will be ever bigger. If you can't sell out the place now, it will never happen. To come on first night and take advantage of all the things that are going to happen, the fact that ESPN is doing the show from there and we have created something that is pretty unique, we have created something that is special that no one else has been able to do. Friday night we are going to celebrate that and we are going to celebrate that in front of the entire country."

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

UConn's Dailey thankful for World Championship experience

Two days ago Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey were in Istanbul, Turkey as the United States team, featuring five current or former UConn players, won the FIBA World Championship for Women.

After a long day of travel, the UConn head coach and associate head coach were back on campus and back at work. Auriemma looked absolutely spent and considering how he graciously gave me more than 15 minutes of his time when I was up at UConn for a football press conference before diving head long into his national team responsibilities, I resisted the temptation to corner him for an interview. However, when Dailey walked by me earlier today, I was able to spend a couple of minutes with her so she could reflect on her time as an advance scout for the gold-medal winning U.S. team.

"It was great," Dailey said. "Anytime you have a chance to do something with USA Basketball and something for your country, it is a great experience and a great opportunity. For me to be able to be around our former players and being there with Stewie having her first experience at that level and I always enjoy spending time with players that we played against like Seimone (Augustus), Lindsay Whalen, Brittney Griner so it is nice to see them in a different environment."

This was likely the final world championship for former Huskies Sue Bird, the first U.S. player to appear in four FIBA World Championship for Women events, and Diana Taurasi. Dailey was thrilled to be able to share that experience with them.

"It is changing of the guard," Dailey said. "To be with them with what is probably their last world championship means something because I think it means a lot to them. Just to see how far they have come and how your relationship as a player and a coach changes over the years... Having different conversations with them about different things, it is a good part of the job."

On the other end of the spectrum was seeing UConn junior Breanna Stewart play in the world championships for the first time and UConn freshman Kia Nurse playing a pivotal role as Canada finished fifth in the tournament, the best performance since 1986.

"Kia is coming to us certainly not as a typical freshman having played the level competition (with the Canadian national team)," Dailey said. "She is coming here with a lot of confidence, a lot of experience. For Stewie, I think it will help. It is eye opening to see what 10 years down the road is going to be like for her. Playing against professionals, how tough you have to be and how physical of a game it is, how skilled you have to be, I think that was great for her to learn "

As for UConn, the Huskies will hold their first practice on Oct. 15. With Morgan Tuck fully cleared to take part in all basketball activities without restriction, the only question is whether freshman Gabby Williams will be fully cleared by the first practice. She is able to do some on the court stuff and is expected to be a full go by the time the Huskies play their first game next month.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Former UConn star Maya Moore leads U.S. to world title

Former UConn star Maya Moore scored 16 of her game-high 18 points in the first half to lead the United States team to its second straight FIBA World Championship for Women with a 77-64 win over Spain. Moore was named the tournament's MVP after leading the U.S. in scoring with an average of 15.2 points per game. She was also 14 of 27 from the 3-point line and her 3-point field goal percentage was tied for the fourth best in tournament history by a U.S. player and best number since 2002.

Lindsay Whalen came off the bench to add 12 points while former UConn star Tina Charles finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists as the U.S. won its ninth World Championship.

Seimone Augustus also scored in double figures as she finished with 10 points and six rebounds off the bench while Brittney Griner added 11 points.

Former UConn star Sue Bird, the first U.S. player to appear in four World Championships, had three assists and three steals and Diana Taurasi, her former teammate with the Huskies, had six points, four rebounds and eight assists.

UConn All-American Breanna Stewart did not score.

It is the second straight World Championship for the U.S. under the direction of UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

Sancho Lyttle, who came into the game averaging 18.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds for Spain while former Connecticut Sun draft pick Alba Torrens had 10 points.

The U.S. clinched a berth in the 2016 Olympics by winning the World Championship.

Here are quotes from Auriemma, Bird, Moore and Stewart courtesy of USA Basketball

On winning his second FIBA World Championship:
 It’s very difficult to win these championships. There’s a lot of great teams and they’re getting better all the time. You can tell by the games, and it’s really, really difficult. For us to be able to do that, even though everybody expects us to do it, that doesn’t make it easier. Yesterday’s Australia’s game and today’s game against Spain were perfect examples of how difficult this is to win. I’m really proud of our team. These guys make a great sacrifice, because they just finished playing in their own league, in the WNBA and a lot of them are getting ready to go play in Europe. So, it’s a tremendous sacrifice that they made for their country and I can’t be more proud of them.

What do you think of the competition and do you think that one day people will be able to close the gap with the USA?
 It goes in cycles. It’s true; we did win in 2010 at the World Championship. But in 2006, we lost. So, it’s not like we’re going to win every year no matter what. We still have to get our best players to play together. There are more good teams than there were, say 10, 12, 14 years ago, from what I remember. There’s just more good teams. The games become more popular and there’s more support for the teams overseas. So, we don’t expect to win every single year. Just the year that we’re playing (laughs).

What was the most difficult part of winning this championship?
 I think for us, it’s usually that we don’t have a lot of time together. So, we know we’re not really prepared for everything. Diana (Taurasi) and Candice (Dupree) got here at the last minute and Brittney (Griner) got here even later than that. We’re just not ready for everything that happens. So, some things we struggle with. So, the biggest thing for us to overcome is on defense most of the time, believe it or not.¬† We have a lot of great offensive players. So, we try to take advantage of that and most of the time it works.

We had a very difficult draw also. We played France in the quarterfinal game. That’s a really difficult quarterfinal game, and Australia in the semifinals, and then Spain. So, we had a very difficult road and sometimes we had to make things up as we go along and usually we find a way.

What was your focus on Spain?
 We went into the game understanding that Alba (Torrens) and Sancho (Lyttle) were going to be really, really key for everything that Spain would accomplish throughout the game. We also knew that they were a great offensive rebounding team. They’re maybe the best offensive rebounding team in the entire tournament. In the first half we did a great job of guarding those two guys, but we didn’t do a great job of keeping them off the glass. I know we scored 40-some points in the first half, I don’t even know how many, but we could have scored a lot more points if we had gotten out in transition after those missed shots. But, they worked exceptionally hard. I think we got most of the stuff accomplished today. We did a great job on the two of them. We didn’t necessarily do a great job on the rebounding, but we shot high percentage. Just like a lot of other times in basketball, when you shoot the ball really well, it covers up a whole lot of other things that maybe you did poorly.

Sue Bird (Seattle Storm)
On tonight’s game:
 Obviously today was a great win for us. Obviously we had one goal the entire time this team’s been together and that was to win a gold medal. Coach Auriemma in the locker room said it best, a lot of people look at this team and see a lot of talent and think it’s going to be easy. But, it’s not. Whenever you can win a gold medal and it’s been a tough journey, it feels even better at the end. Everyone’s really happy and really excited about the medal and I’m definitely proud of this team.

On being the most decorated athlete (three gold medals, one bronze medal) in FIBA World Championship history, men or women. What does that mean to you?
 I know when I hear 2006 (when the USA returned with the bronze medal), it still makes me mad. But, I don’t really know how to feel about it right now to be honest. It’s kind of surreal. I’m sure it’s one of those things, when I get older and look back and reflect, it’ll probably hit me a little more than it is right now. But, I do know that I’ve been very lucky to play for some amazing coaches alongside some amazing teammates and I know that I’m just been one player. I happen to have been to four Worlds, but I definitely didn’t do anything by myself, that’s for sure. Looking back I’m sure it’ll hit me, but right now I’m just enjoying this one.

Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx)
On tonight’s game:
 Coming into the game we were all really excited, just knowing that so many of us have been in this position to compete for a title. We played better and better each game, coming together, especially offensively, getting a feel for each other and knowing how each other moves and where we’re going to be. It was really fun to watch that develop and today we were able to do that one last time and finish our journey together. Every team that came here played with so much heart and so much passion, so to overcome all the teams that have been working together for months was really satisfying.¬†

How much more can this team evolve for Rio in 2016?
 Well, you can every single player, ‘Could you have done something better?’ And each one of us will say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ It’s the beauty of basketball; you’re never really done. There’s always to improve. It’s such a fluid game. There’s always things you can tweak and improve upon and be better. So, that’s the challenge and that’s why we come in practice every day. We of course come to win the game, but ultimately we want to win playing well together. As long as there’s another game, there’s another opportunity to be better.

So, every time we have a training camp, whenever we come together, that’s our goal: to play beautiful basketball together. With this group it was easy at times, just because there are so many great players. But, it’s always a grind. You’re always trying to compete and work and get better, and two years from now some of the younger players that you saw will be even better and the players who are a little bit older will be even more experienced and I’m excited to see what that looks like.

On earning MVP:
 It hasn’t really hit me. I’m just excited that we won. If one of us is talking about what MVP means, it means our team won. So, that’s what I’m most excited about. I’m just grateful to be able to contribute to this phenomenal team. Just the legacy of USA Basketball is unpatrolled. To have participated with USA Basketball since I was a teenager is really cool. Just to be healthy enough to be here, and to have the coaching staff and the people that helped make us look great and put us in positions to be ourselves is really awesome. International basketball, you can’t get any bigger. You’re competing on the world stage and there’s so many emotions wrapped up in it from different teams, from different countries. You’ve got family and friends who have come so long to come support us and you feel that extra special appreciation, because you’re playing with players that you’ll probably going to be competing against the majority of your career. To enjoy that camaraderie for the month that we’re together is pretty memorable.¬†

Breanna Stewart (University of Connecticut)
On winning alongside her UConn family:
 It is special. Obviously, when you grow and get to UConn, you realize how much your family has grown, and the fact that I’m able to celebrate this with not only my coaches, but also people who have played at UConn before me, and the road that they have paved for us.

Are you ready to go back to school?
 I’m actually looking forward to seeing my teammates and my friends again, but I could do this for a little bit. It’s been a great experience, and I’m glad to be able to be here.

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UConn freshman Kia Nurse had thrill of a lifetime at World Championships

The constant flood of text messages from the members of the two-time defending national champions weren't all the reminders of what awaits for Canadian national team starting guard Kia Nurse during her memorable time in Turkey. She also had the chance to bump into UConn All-American Breanna Stewart, the Huskies' Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma and the Huskies' highly-respected associate head coach Chris Dailey in the hallways and lobby of the FIBA World Championship for Women team hotel in Istanbul.

While Nurse's Canadian team did not get to square off with Auriemma's defending champion United States squad, that was about the only thing Canada's team failed to accomplish over the last several days.

Despite playing without the injured Natalie Achonwa, who would have been one of the team's best post players, Canada defeated 2010 World Championship silver medalist Czech Republic, 2012 Olympic finalist France and China en route to an impressive fifth place finish.

"Around the locker room there was nothing but excitement and happiness," Nurse said a conference call after Canada's 61-53 win over China in the fifth-place game. "Definitely the older players are little more excited that the younger players, they have been through the trenches and have been with the team for a very long time so they knew exactly what it took to get here where some of our younger players are just coming in now and realizing what we have to do to get back to this place. Definitely it is a huge deal for us. We are excited with our finish and thinking it can go nowhere but up."

Nurse had nine points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals in the win over China as Canada recorded its best World Championship finish since winning the bronze medal in 1986.

Nurse, the youngest player on the Canadian team and second youngest in the tournament, finished fourth on the team in scoring averaging 6.9 points per game and her seven steals in the seven games was tied for second on the squad.

"There are hundreds of things I have learned over the last two years. I have been really grateful to have such great teammates and a great coaching staff to help me push through," Nurse said. "I have learned a lot about the mental side of the game, how to think my way through the game and playing against some really great point guards has really exposed some of my weaknesses. It has really helped me realize my strengths and become more confident in that."

Veteran Canadian guard Shona Thorburn, who led her team in assists and steals, has taken the 18-year-old Nurse under her wing as they work out together in their mutual hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.

Thorburn has seen Nurse grow as a player by leaps and bounds even since the time the team gathered for the first of three training camps.

"Her intelligence, she is getting it," said Thorburn, the seventh overall pick in the 2006 WNBA Draft who appeared in 22 games with the Minnesota Lynx in the 2006 season. "She is improving every game. Mentally, some of passes she made (in the tournament) she wasn't making at beginning of the summer.

"Every game she is learning and getting excited. She is an older child, she is completing against women. I hope she is encouraged and it fuels her fire to be one of those stars in the future."

Nurse has gravitated towards Thorburn and fellow veteran Kim Gaucher looking to absorb whatever knowledge and insight she can from the team leaders of the Canadian program. 

"Playing with the two of them has been incredible," Nurse said. "I sit on the bench sometimes and every game say 'oh my gosh, that really just happened.' They are two really amazing players. They are geniuses on the basketball court, they know exactly what is going on. Kim was here at a young age like I am and if I can be anything like a leader like her ... They are two of the best leaders I have ever had the privilege to play with."

Nurse had nine points in the tournament opener against Mozambique but then had four combined points on 2 of 10 shooting in losses to host Turkey and France. Nurse had her tournament high of 12 points in a win over the Czech Republic which put Canada into the quarterfinals and averaged 8.8 points, 2 rebounds and 1.5 assists in the final four games of the tournament against the No. 2, 4, 5 and 8 teams in the latest FIBA World Rankings.

"Over the past year it has been night and day," Canada coach Lisa Thomaidis said of Nurse's improvement. "I said to somebody else that every game that we get to have her and she gets to play in a senior national team uniform is another day that she takes a step up. I think she continues to grow and to improve after every single competition. She is such a competitor. She gets a lot of work with our coaching staff as far as what to think about, what to improve on and watching film. She gets a measuring stick every single night against some 30-year-old guards who have a skill set that is a little bit more refined than she has right now but she is continuing to improve and it only going to get better. She is going to a pretty good program I hear."

So what did Nurse improve the most on during this summer?

"It is just a stepping stone," Nurse said, "I have been playing against the best players in the world and you can't ask for anything better than that. Going into UConn, I am hoping to bring things that I learned like the stretch finishes and reading the defender's eyes so I can bring the mental side of the game over to Connecticut to help me be successful there.

"I think I am getting my head up a little quicker, seeing posts on the (pick and) roll, seeing defenders in front of me, the second line of defenders. Sometimes I am like 'wow, that really just happened and I really made that play.' Probably three months ago I wouldn't have seen that."

Nurse spent a week or two at UConn in between her time with the national team. She is planning to return to campus on Tuesday where she will get caught up academically and have a week to get comfortable before UConn opens practice on Oct. 15.

"I am extremely excited," Nurse said. "I have seen them (Auriemma, Dailey and Stewart) around the hotel a little bit and had a conversation with here and there. I hung out with Stewie the other night and I could not be more excited to go back. My teammates have been texting me waiting for me to come back and I am really excited to get on the court with them."

It's been an extra special time for the Nurse family as her older brother Darnell who has played in six of the first eight preseason games, is tied for second on the team with a plus 3 defensive rating and his two assists is tied for the lead among the 12 defensemen to play for the Oilers. He showed enough that he made the Oilers' opening day roster.

"My parents got here to support us," Kia Nurse said "They got here for the first game. Some days they wake up really late and I ask them why and they got up at 4 a.m. Turkey time watching my brother play his game. I am excited for him because he is living out his dream, he is working really hard, If anybody deserves that, he does and to have him as my brother and have him in my support system it is a great thing to have in your pocket."

Speaking of Edmonton, that is the site of the FIBA Americas Championship for Women in 2015. Last year Canada finished second in that tournament to qualify for the World Championships and is now looking to do the same to earn a spot in the 2016 Olympics. The tournament runs from Aug. 9-15 at the University of Alberta.

According to the tournament's official site, there were 193 players on the rosters of the 16 teams and 12 of them were teenagers. Nurse played the most minutes and had the most points and second best scoring average.

Player Country           Age   G M  FGS 3PT FTS P-R-A-S-B (TO)
Rosa Gala Angola         19 3   33 1-8   1-4  1-2    4- 4- 1-1-0 (5)
Sion Kim Korea 19 dnp
Meng Li China             19 5   34 5-12  2-8  5-5   17-11- 0-1-0 (4)
Sanja Mandic Serbia 19 2     8 2-2    2-2  0-2     6-  0- 2-0-0 (0)
Kia Nurse Canada         18 7 152 18-47 3-13 9-15  48-11- 8-7-0 (7)
Jihyun Shin Korea         19 3   39   5-9   2-4  0-0   12- 7- 5-2-0 (3)
Jisu Park Korea 15 3   84 14-42 0-0  5-6   33-15- 1-3-4 (8)
Leticia Romero Spain 19   3   10   0-2   0-1  0-0     0- 0- 0-0-0 (2)
Tilbe Senyurek Turkey 19 2   15   3-9   0-1  1-1     7- 1- 1-0-0 (1)
Helena Viegas Angola 19 2   10   0-1   0-1  2-2     2- 0- 1-0-0 (1)
Ksenija Voishal Belarus 19 1     5   0-1   0-0  0-0     0- 0- 0-0-0 (0)
Liwei Yang China         19 7 116 11-29 3-15 6-8   31-14-17-5-2 (14)

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UConn's Nurse leads Canada to 5th place at FIBA Worlds

UConn freshman Kia Nurse finished as Canada's
fourth-leading scorer in FIBA World Championships
UConn incoming freshman Kia Nurse had nine points as she hit four of her six free throws in the closing minutes and made her third 3-pointer of the tournament to go with three rebounds, three assists and two steals as Canada defeated China 61-53 to finish fifth in the FIBA World Championship for Women.

She finished as the fourth leading-scorer and was tied for second in steals for Canada which finished 4-3 in the tournament.

Nurse, the second-youngest player in the tournament, finished as the highest scorer among the 11 teenagers to play in the tournament as she had 48 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and seven steals in seven games as Canada had its best finish in the World Championships since winning the bronze medal in 1986.

Kim Gaucher led Canada with 16 points while Miranda Ayim added 15 points and nine rebounds.


Saturday, October 04, 2014

Former UConn stars Charles, Moore and Taurasi lead U.S. to World Championship final

Bitter rival Australia predictably gave the United States a tough test before the defending champions advance to the gold medal game in the FIBA World Championship for Women.

Former UConn stars Tina Charles and Maya Moore played starring roles in the 82-70 victory as Charles had 18 points and nine rebounds while Moore had 16 points, five rebounds and five assists. Fellow former Husky Diana Taurasi had 11 points, none bigger than a jumper early in the fourth quarter when Australia had cut the lead to six points. Former UConn star Sue Bird had two points, three rebounds and two steals and UConn All-American Breanna Stewart had one rebound.

Former Connecticut Sun guard Erin Phillips led Australia with 19 points.

The U.S. will play Spain in the title game on Sunday at 2:15 p.m. in a game to be aired live on ESPN2.

USA head coach Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut)

On tonight’s game

We knew going into the game that it was going to be hard, no matter what the final score was going to be. We knew that we would feel it after the game; that it was going to be a hard-fought, very physical kind of a game. After that first quarter, we did a really, really good job of keeping Australia off the free throw line. I think they were averaging taking 27 free throws a game coming into this game, and I think they attempted 15. They were shooting 27 of them, so we wanted to concentrate a lot on keeping them off the free-throw line. I think they shot 10 in the first quarter. And after that we did a great job, we made a really strategic coaching decision. We said, ‘don’t let them shoot any more free throws. Just let them shoot wide-open 3s,’ and they made seven of them in the second half. So, that really worked out great for us (joking).

On the play of Tina Charles against Australia and throughout the tournament:

You’re right. She’s been playing exceptionally well the entire tournament. But when Brittney Griner’s in the building, that’s where all the focus is going to be from everyone. Tonight we kind of had an idea of how physical Australia was going to be with Brittney, and this is her first time through this. So, I’m not sure she’s had enough experience playing against these kinds of players on a regular basis, and Tina has. So, tonight you saw the experience that Tina has, and she played a lot of minutes, too. She played 31 minutes. Tina’s doing a lot of little things that maybe don’t even show on the boxscore. Some of the little things that she’s doing, whether it’s getting through a screen or making a pass to somebody, tipping the ball, kind of like Nneka (Ogwumike). Sometimes these guys do things that don’t end up big on the stat sheet, but they keep possessions alive, they get big buckets when the other guys are making a run. I’m not surprised, but I couldn’t be happier for Tina.

On Spain:
Spain deserves to be in the championship game. They deserve to be there because they played well the whole tournament and because they beat the home team in front of a great crowd in a great game. They have earned their way to the game tomorrow. So, I don’t think they’re looking at us and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to play the United States.’ I think that what they did today was very impressive.

Tina Charles (New York Liberty)

On her performance tonight:

I know my role on the team – get on the boards finish when I can; if you get it in the post just make a great post move. B.G. (Brittney Griner) got in foul trouble, so it put a lot on my mind, just how I had to be there and stay out of foul trouble myself. So, I was just taking what the game gave me.

On the game against Australia:

We knew it was going to be tough. We haven’t taken anything for granted since the start of this tournament. Australia played aggressive, especially without Elizabeth Cambage, who is really their centerpiece. We just answered, we just responded really well.

On playing Spain:

It’s going to be really tough. Again, every player here, every team here got here for a reason, same way we got here. So, we’re looking forward to it. They have a great player with Alba Torrens and Laia (Palau), and a great inside game. We really look forward to it.

Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) 

On the game:

I thought we came out pretty well with our defensive focus and moved the ball, putting people in positions to score. I’m not sure how many assists we had, but I felt like we were finding each other. In the second half, we did a much better job of keeping them off the free throw line. We gave up a few too many 3s, more than we would have liked, and we had a few moments where we gave up some offensive boards.

But overall, I thought we dominated defensively with our pressure and limiting them to one shot.

On playing Spain:

I’m excited. It should be a really great matchup as far as the two best teams in the tournament, I think, meeting in the gold medal game. Spain has a lot of great weapons, offensive talent, some versatile posts, guards that are pretty slippery and can get to the paint. So, we are going to have our hands full. It’s going to take a lot of focus and determination on our end, but I think we use our physicality well, and if we come with the same defensive focus, we will be great.

UConn's Nurse, Canada to play for fifth place at World Championships

Already owning a win of 2010 silver medalists Czech Republic, UConn incoming freshman Kia Nurse's Canada team took down another big-time team by topping France 55-40 in a classification game.

Nurse finished with six points, one rebound, one assist and one steal in the game as Canada set up a showdown with China for fifth place in the FIBA World Championshp for Women.

Canada opened the second quarter with 15 straight points to take a 30-8 lead. France, which won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, did chip away at the lead a bit in the third quarter but never got back within striking range. France scored 31 points in the first half when the teams met in pool play but were held to 16 by halftime on Saturday.

"Sometimes we give teams too much respect," Canada coach Lisa Thomaidis said. "When we are aggressive defensively we talk about how it carries over to the other end."

Miranda Ayim led a balanced Canada offense with 12 points while Shona Thornburn added nine points as Canada advances to meet China tomorrow.

Canada is guaranteed its best finish in the World Championships since placing third in 1986 and also finished third in 1979.

"That was a message in team room and these games matter," Canada coach Lisa Thomaidis said. "The difference between eighth and fifth is massive. We want to be a team that proves we are here and we belong here. Each win is a huge win."

Coming off an eighth-place finish at the 2012 Olympics, these are obviously exciting times for the Canadian national team program.

"We didn't set any goals but we wanted to send message that it wasn't a fluke at the Olympics what happened," Thornburn said. "I think the young kids are realizing it and it is enormous.

"The Olympics were such an amazing experience. That team paved way for this team's success, this team is feeding off what 2012 did and made improvements."

Thornburn believes the three training camps and exhibition games have helped set the stage for what is happening in Turkey right now.

"A lot of dedication, hard work and commitment," Thornburn said. "We have a handful players with 100 (national team appearances) and it shows commitment from the players. (In the past Canada had) 10 days of practice and were thrown into competition. No wonder we aren't winning,"