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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Former UConn star Nykesha Sales loving the coaching life

Nykesha Sales' office inside CFE Arena has some memorabilia from her days at UConn and with the WNBA's Connecticut Sun but her focus is very much on helping change the culture of the UCF women's basketball program than spending time pondering her incredible run of basketball success in Connecticut.

Tomorrow Sales, who is in her first season as an assistant coach on the staff of UCF coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, will be on the opposing sideline from her college coach for the very first time. So how does Sales think it will be seeing Geno Auriemma and UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey on the other bench?

"This is the first time," Sales said. "I think if you ask me this next year, I will have a better idea but I don't know. We haven't come up against a team that is as good as UConn and I am curious how our players are going to respond. We (the coaching staff) are going to go out there ready to go but we are not playing. It will be a great atmosphere, I am sure it will a pretty full building so we get to experience that, the players get to experience that and see how you respond. It is a game, it is a competition. I don't expect anything less from them and it is a challenge for us, we have to step up and see how we respond."

Spoken like a true coach.

At American Athletic Conference media day, Abrahamson-Henderson talked about how she saw Sales playing a pickup game on the UCF campus and that started the process of her offering Sales a chance to join her staff.

"It was a conversation," Sales said. "This might be something I could be interested in because she is adamant about teaching me how to coach. I played a lot of years but I wouldn't say I knew how to coach. I wanted to see if I knew how to coach, I didn't just make that expectation that because I played professionally for 15 years, I know how to coach, I didn't come in that  way. With her making me feel confident 'don't worry, I will teach you everything.' That is what made me say that maybe this would be a good idea for me."

The first person Sales called when Abrahamson-Henderson suggested to Sales that she consider joining the UCF staff was Auriemma.

"He was like 'do it, go for it and I think you would be a great coach,'" Sales said. "I know he helped me a lot with that, he made some calls  and I talked to him a little bit about it. He definitely had something to do with it because as soon as I talked to Coach (Abrahamson-Henderson) I called him immediately.

UCF hasn't had a winning season since going 22-11 in the 2010-11 campaign. In the last three seasons the Knights won 10, 9 and 7 games leading Abrahamson-Henderson leaving Albany to take over the UCF program.

UCF started the season 6-1 and currently have a 10-3 record. Getting them to understand how things are done on winning teams has been part of Sales' task along with the other coaches.

"The players have been really good, you can tell they are trying to change their philosophy and style, trying to turn this into a winning program," Sales said. "I haven't really had any problems with them at all. They are a good group but we have a lot to learn, they are not used to winning here. There is a whole different style, mentality you have to play to be a winning program, we have a long way to go but I think they have bought in which is good. It has not taken that long for them to buy in.

"At this point have done completely different things with this program, 10 (wins) would be coming in March if they won 10 or 11 games so right now at 10 in December and that is big for us. For the coaches, we are like 'that is nothing' but for the players it is like 'oh, wow/' We need to get them to understand that there is still a long way to go and we still trying to win a lot more games than just 10. We are trying win a lot more games than that. They are coming from Albany, I am coming from where I came from so we are just used to winning and that is not good enough for us."

Auriemma didn't peg Sales as a person who would naturally gravitate toward coaching but he believes her knowledge, success and personality will serve her well.

"I assume she is doing a great job and she is adding a lot to their coaching staff," Auriemma said.

"She always had that great way about her where people are naturally attracted to her, drawn into her. She can disarm you with part is innocence, part is she has a positive outlook on everything in life. There isn't much that she hasn't accomplished as a player. People don't talk about it because she never won a (WNBA) championship although she came close. I still give her a hard time that she had to make one shop in one game in Seattle for them to win the WNBA championship and I never let her forget about it. I think when she talks to players it is not 'this is what I think.' It is 'this is what I know.' I am sure the players are very receptive to that."

What is interesting is that four core players from UConn's first national championship team are coaching with Sales being joined by Tufts head coach Carla Berube, Cincinnati head coach Jamelle Elliott and George Washington head coach Jen Rizzotti. ESPN's Rebecca Lobo and SNY's Kara Wolters have prominent broadcasting roles meaning a large percentage of that 1994-95 team is still very involved and visible in the world of women's basketball.

"The experiences we had in college were unbelievable and it is hard to walk away from that," Sales said. "A lot of players won't be able to play professionally either at all or for a long time so you still want to be involved. You learn a lot of things early being coached by Coach Auriemma so you feel like you could bring what you learn, what kind of things you need instilled on the team in order to win because all of us have won in college and you are itching to get back into the game. I am definitely not surprised. All of them are doing great things and I think you learn that early. You had such a great college experience, some people don't at all but we all did and we all wanted to bring that to the younger generation and show them how it is really done."

Sales feels fortunate to be working for a coach with similar philosophies as the ones she played for in college.

"When I talk to her, she can tell that she believes in some of the same things that he believes in and what is important," Sales said. "I understand how important it is, I have been through college, out in the real world. I have learned a lot from Coach Auriemma and CD, not just basketball but like skills. That is what I like about her, she is not all about just basketball and recruiting the best players, she is looking for somebody to fit this program. She is all about family before even basketball. That is important. I was fortunate to go 15-16 years but that is not realistic for everybody. You have a good good foundation with your family, you have to realize that academics is everything. If there is a life with basketball, that is a lot of things that Coach Auriemma instills. He is looking for certain players to represent his program, not just get buckets but who is going to represent his brand being a Husky.

"We are looking to do the same things here and we have already. A lot of kids that we have now are not people that we recruited but we are trying to teach them that this is how you have to be in order to be successful now and after college."

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