Blogs > Elm City to Eagleville

A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Irwin makes an impact for UConn

Since UConn has made the move to exclusively playing Division II or NAIA teams (with the exception of one game against the U.S. national team) the list of freshmen to score more than 10 points in their preseason debut is short and impressive.

Caroline Doty, Tiffany Hayes, Kelly Faris, Moriah Jefferson, Maya Moore, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Kia Nurse, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck all accomplished the feat. Now you can add Kyla Irwin's name to the list.

Irwin scored 10 of her 12 points in the fourth quarter in the 111-39 win over Indiana (Pa.) and also had all four of her rebounds including three of the offensive end.

The degree of difficulty will soon increase after playing an undersized Division II team but it was still impressive to see Irwin make her presence felt in her first game as a Husky.

"I was just playing hard, that is what I was trying to do to get rebounds and get the shots up and look for my open teammates," Irwin said.

"It is good to get that first game under my belt. It is nice that I was able to do what I did and the help from my teammates made it a little bit easier."

The 6-foot-2 Irwin was probably the least heralded of the three incoming freshmen but she hasn't wasted much time impressing her coaches and teammates.

"She definitely played great today," UConn junior guard Kia Nurse said. "What she does really well is finds the ball off the boards, offensive rebound and those kinds of things. I think she did a really good job today of coming into the game and making an impact.

"When you come out in this atmosphere for the first time in that UConn jersey there are a lot of emotions that you are going through, I think for her to come out and have an impact like that is just a great confidence booster something that we need her to understand that she can do every single game so she can make an impact."

Molly Bent was the first freshman to get into the game. She led her classmates with 18 minutes played as she finished with two points, one rebound and one assist. Irwin had 12 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes and Crystal Dangerfield ended up with two points, two rebounds, three assists (two rather impressive ones) and two steals in 12 minutes.

One of the most impressive things I saw from the three of them is how engaged they were from the bench from the start of the game. Sometimes it takes time for newcomers to get the message that being invested in what is going on in the court even when you aren't playing is a part of UConn's culture but they already seem to have grasped that part of things.

"I've always been on to jump up and down when any good play happens, it has been instilled in me for as long as I have been playing and I think it rubs off on everybody else," Irwin said. "Everybody really cares for everybody on the team so we want to get excited for that."

Obviously the fact that Washington coach Mike Neighbors had former UConn forward Morgan Valley on his coaching staff got plenty of play in these parts at the 2016 Final Four. Now the West Coast Huskies have another assistant with ties to UConn as Jasmine Lister, a graduate assistant in the last two seasons, was hired as an assistant at Washington.

Neighbors couldn'r speak highly enough about the job Lister has done since arriving.

"We expected that she would hit the ground running and she made an impact in everything that she has done," Neighbors said at Monday's NCAA media day at ESPN. "Somebody who goes to a college (Vanderbilt) and leads their program in minutes played in their history, you know they have value.

"I felt like having that championship pedigree around, I felt it was a huge difference for us. I can look to Morgan and go 'is that how UConn did it? Is that how Geno did things?' Most days she would do that (give a thumb's down signal) and we would try again."

Neighbors knew that his coaching staff would look much different in the 2016-17 season than it did during last season's magical run to the Final Four.

Adia Barnes was hired as Arizona's head coach, Fred Castro took the head coaching gig at Eastern Michigan while Director of Player Development Jackie Nared left to play professionally.

Neighbors acted proactively and would touch base with coaches who had connections to potential assistant coaches.

"I talked to (UConn associate head coach) Chris Dailey at the Final Four," Neighbors said. "I knew Adia was probably going to get the Arizona job, I was really worried about losing Morgan. When he felt making the deep run, Fred's name came up so I was prepared to lose everybody. I knew Jasmine was young but talented and experienced in her own way. Geno and I played golf together at an event and were talking about her. It solidified that if I could get her out there back to the west coast and it worked out perfectly."

The loss of two assistants and three staff members has changed Valley's role at Washington.

"I have to confide in her more," Neighbors said. "I had it spread out among three people in the past because I had trust built up and now Morgan gets the brunt of it. Her role has changed and she has to deal with me more than she probably would care to but I trust her so fully and I rely on her for all the decisions I have to make, I want her input on. She has rolled into that position, she knows how to anticipate me as well so she has made such an impact for us. I think it was a huge difference for us losing in the first round (and advancing to the Final Four).

"She is so passionate about the kids, she covers up so many of my mistakes. When I thought I was going to lose her, I lost some sleep. When the Vermont job opened, it was right so we were very fortunate."
Neighbors said there have been conversations about playing UConn in the past couple of years but things never worked out. If UConn had hosted a three-day tournament as it had in some previous seasons, he would have pushed to have been a part of the field.

Neighbors also said he hopes to hear about the status of Natalie Romeo's appeal to the NCAA to be immediately eligible after transferring from Nebraska. He said that process slowed down a bit when Romeo helped the U.S. win a bronze medal in the FIBA Women's 3x3 World Championship last month.


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