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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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."


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