Aug 29, 2013
STORRS, Conn. - With the University of Connecticut women's basketball roster sitting at just nine total players this season, each member will need to contribute if UConn is to make another run at a national title. While Connecticut's second team is often overlooked around the nation, the bench was a critical piece of the 2012-13 championship and will be a huge determinant of the Huskies' success in the 2013-14 season. Junior center Kiah Stokes looks to build upon her sophomore campaign which saw her quietly put up impressive numbers coming off the bench for head coach Geno Auriemma.
Stokes saw action in 32 games last season, making one start against St. John's on February, 2. The Marion, Iowa native averaged 2.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 10.7 minutes per game. While Stokes' numbers are far from eye-popping, a little digging through the UConn record books shows that Stokes has special potential. Her 39 blocks rank eighth all-time for a player in their sophomore campaign, trailing the legendary Diana Taurasiby just seven blocks. In 2011-12, Stokes recorded 50 blocks, which was the fourth most by a Connecticut freshman. Her 89 career blocks put her 15th all-time in UConn history, needing just 43 blocks this season to crack the top-10.
While Stokes' presence on defense is more visible to fans, as she consistently provides the defense a spark with a monster block, it is important to note how she impacts the offense when she's out on the court. 2.8 points per game may seem rather pedestrian, but looking at the context of her scoring yields interesting results. Stokes connected on 35 shots this season in 53 attempts, finishing the season with a .660 shooting percentage. In her freshman year, Stokes knocked down 65 shots and earned a .602 shooting percentage. In total, her .621 shooting percentage would rank her third all-time in Connecticut history if she had enough shot attempts. 2013-14 gives Stokes a legitimate shot to crack the list and meet the minimum requirements.
"I think she's definitely underrated," said junior center Stefanie Dolson. "She makes big plays for us out on the court. She's a versatile player and I think she will be a big piece for us this year. You can see how she's grown from her freshman year."
With the Huskies finishing the season ranked first in the nation in scoring offense at 82.5 points per game, and second in the country with a 49.6 shooting percentage, Stokes' play often gets lost as All-Americans Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewisgarner national attention. For Stokes, the transition to Connecticut's feared style of play posed a challenge that she now feels like she has effectively managed.
"In high school, I was always the person who was going to put up the big numbers," Stokes said. "Coming here we have so many great players that it was hard for me to be aggressive. I think my confidence took a bit of a hit but I've really been working hard this summer on trying to be more aggressive and taking good shots that I know I can make."
Despite the fact that Stokes has made only one start in her career, she takes it upon herself to become a leader on the court this season. The Connecticut roster is in a unique position as there are just two seniors on the squad, making it crucial that the juniors rise to the challenge.
"There's definitely some added responsibility for us this year. It definitely starts in the offseason and in practice. I know that coach is going to expect me to give 100 percent all year. I know that there are no excuses this year."
One of the best resources at Stokes' disposal is her fellow center, Dolson, a 2012-13 WBCA/State Farm All-America Team selection. There are obvious similarities between the pair, in terms of freshman year highs-and-lows as well and the ability to impact the game with tough, interior defense. Undoubtedly, the two have formed a bond over Stokes' first two years in Storrs.
"I definitely look up to her," Stokes said. "I think we had similar freshman years with the ups-and-downs but the way she has established herself as one of the toughest players is the country is something that I can really learn from. She battles out there every minute. I think to be successful I'm going to need to do the same thing."
Stokes embraces her role as a second team player, noting the importance of the bench personnel. Not only does the bench provide rest for the starters, but it provides insurance for UConn's stars. Last season, Bria Hartleymissed nine games due to ankle injuries and Dolson narrowly escaped missing time with plantar fasciitis and a stress fracture.
"I think with our team only having nine players, the bench is going to have to step it up big time. We know if the starters are going out there and playing anywhere near 40 minutes a game they are going to get burned out in just a few months. None of us coming off the bench are worried about our personal numbers. We want to help this team win. Whether that is in 40 minutes or in five minutes on the court, it doesn't matter."
As the calendar creeps towards September and Huskies basketball draws closer, Stokes is once again prepared to be a factor off the bench for UConn. Whether or not she gets any of the national spotlight, she should help the Huskies make a run late into the postseason.