As the 2014-15 NCAA Women's Basketball season began, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma announced to his team that no one would be taking away the 2014 National Championship, and that they had nothing to defend. Instead, as a new team with a new identity, they were to attack the rest of the country, to go out and claim their own championship. Thirty-nine games later, the Huskies triumphed in Tampa Bay, hoisted another trophy, the program's record-tying tenth overall, and earned another piece of hardware for the illustrious collection in Storrs. It is another championship that will not need defending over the course of this season. Commence the greatest `attack' in the history of women's basketball.
The story of last season is one of great expectations backed by a stumbling effort, at least to start. With dreams of the program's second "Three Peat," the Huskies found themselves running out of the gates in the general direction of Tampa and the Final Four, but with no real path to get there. The leaders responsible for the grit and determination of the 2013 and 2014 National Championships had graduated. While great talent and versatile depth highlighted the 2015 roster, a clear leader with knowledge on how to win remained absent. Two members of the roster had won one championship, and five had won two, but none had ever been at the forefront, in the trenches, fighting battles every day to prepare herself and her teammates for the road ahead; all had only ever been along for the ride.
Fans, and the team, learned that fact the hard way, and very early last November. After 85 minutes of basketball, the Huskies' record stood at 1-1, faltering in Palo Alto to a Stanford team that would suffer its own season-long roller coaster, due in part to their lack of a clear-cut leader. It was UConn's first loss since the 2013 Big East Tournament Championship, a heartbreaking 61-59 defeat against Notre Dame in Hartford. Like that one, this came in shocking fashion: the Cardinal threw hard punches as time wound down, making big shots and securing crucial defensive stops, while the Huskies failed to attempt a shot with their final possession. Stanford stormed the court in elation, a haunting image searing into the UConn players' minds as they walked, heads bowed, past the rush of red and black.
Kiah Stokes recalls passing that mob. "I was shocked. When I saw them lose to some teams during the season, it made me feel sick. But I remember replaying it in my head, thinking `I should have done this better, I should have done that better,' so that it would not happen again."
Breanna Stewart, the two-time National Player of the Year, remembers that feeling, too. "I was angry and shocked. I remember thinking `how did this just happen?' And then I thought, `we needed this.' We are not indestructible."
The lofty, albeit unspoken, goals of repeating as undefeated National Champions were lost before December appeared on the horizon. Instead, a painful wakeup call stirred champions from their slumber.
The rest of the story is easy enough to remember: the team sailed through the inaugural Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Florida over Thanksgiving, when freshman Kia Nurse officially burst onto the scene as a Husky. The tournament preceded a 2014 National Championship rematch in South Bend. After trailing by ten points in the first half, Morgan Tuck re-emerged as a key piece to the championship puzzle; the redshirt sophomore poured in a career-high 25 points to rout the Irish. Massive home wins against Duke ("starring" the New Moriah Jefferson), then-top-ranked South Carolina (a balanced offensive output that sent the Huskies back to the top of the national polls), and conference-foe South Florida propelled UConn into the American Conference tournament, culminating with another win over USF, with lessons learned and battle tests passed.
March came and went, and so did St. Francis, Rutgers, Texas, and Dayton. Slowly but surely, with hard work and trust, the winding, dirt path that led from Storrs to Tampa in November became a sturdy and straight road, paved with victories over some of the best teams in the country. Maryland fought hard, but was overmatched in the lane. The inside tandem of Stewart and Morgan Tuck combined for 49 points. UConn met Notre Dame again, and the Irish pushed buttons like no other team can, but a knife-like 7-0 run from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis sent them home empty-handed. Breanna Stewart won the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for a third-consecutive season. The Huskies were champions. In Storrs, all was right.
Four-year contributor Stokes, a nationally recognized shot-blocking presence, and two-time All-American Mosqueda-Lewis have bid farewell to the farms of Tolland County for New York and Seattle (or, South Korea and France). But the promise of 2016 may be stronger than anyone can remember in recent history.
"This year is different," says Tuck, who after coasting quietly through her first two seasons on campus, has emerged as the team's confident and capable leader.
"This year, we know what we need to do to get where we want to get. It was not like that, this time last year." True, the team's goals are the same as last October. True, many of the same players return. "Yeah, the goals are the same, but last year we tried to take shortcuts. This year, we know we have to do things the right way, which will make things easier on us - especially in the beginning."
A grueling preseason of weight-training, conditioning circuits, academic coursework, and individual and small group workouts under the meticulous watch of assistant coaches Chris Dailey, Marisa Moseley, and Shea Ralph, is finally wrapping up. A summer of traveling, during which Huskies represented the United States and Canada in four different competitions in Colorado Springs; Toronto; Edmonton; and Chekhov, Russia, seems like a distant memory. Perhaps the most interesting, now that the dust has settled and practice has begun, are all the new faces in Storrs.
The obvious newcomers are the trio of high school All-Americans, Katie Lou Samuelson, De'Janae Boykin, and Napheesa Collier. Samuelson, hailing from the same high school as former-Husky Mosqueda-Lewis, is a California native who scored nearly 4,000 points in her prep career. Collier, from St. Louis, is a stat-sheet filler, capable of putting up big numbers offensively and defensively. Boykin, an athletic post, has a competitive spirit and a drive to win. All have won gold with USA Basketball, all were McDonald's All-Americans, and all have tremendous expectations of themselves. They will fit in nicely.
"It is not really new for us to have the mentality of going hard every day," Napheesa says, speaking for De'Janae and Katie Lou. "But now, the competition is so much better." Katie Lou says it is a `level up' from high school. Napheesa and De'Janae laugh. "It's more like ten levels up!"
There are less obvious newcomers as well. Redshirt sophomore Natalie Butler, fresh off an NCAA-mandated year of residency following her transfer from Georgetown, is eager for a chance to earn a place in the lineup.
This summer, the Canadian National Team enjoyed unprecedented success behind the emergence of a bright new star: Kia Nurse. With a new level of confidence from her very eventful summer, in which she won gold at the Pan-Am Games and helped Canada qualify for the 2016 Olympics, Kia feels "like a whole new player, really."
The summer is a time for individual improvement, and according to Morgan Tuck, everyone has gotten better. Who has honed her game most, according to Tuck? "Gabby. For sure. She got way better," says Morgan, referencing sophomore forward Gabby Williams. "It has shown in so many ways!" Tuck says through an excited smile, thinking about Gabby's upside for this season. During her freshman year, Williams was named American Conference 6th Player of the Year, and boasted ridiculously efficient numbers per forty minutes. It is scary to think that she is perhaps the most improved from last April.
Even with the changes to the roster, the 2015-16 Huskies are taking an exciting shape.
"We are together as a big group more. Even if we are not doing anything, everyone is together," says Morgan Tuck, who has been a part of three very different teams before this year. "Everyone is comfortable with each other. That is only going to help us on the court."
Now that practice has officially begun, time will tell what is in store for this team. Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart are senior All-Americans, joined by a quiet assassin in Tuck. Kia Nurse has transformed herself into an energetic playmaker. A much-improved bench includes instant-offense guard Saniya Chong, exciting sophomores in Gabby Williams and Courtney Ekmark, fan-favorites Briana Pulido and Tierney Lawlor, and the new crop of talent in Butler, Boykin, Collier, and Samuelson.
On paper, this UConn team appears to be as dangerous as any group before them. And Tuck is right, this year is different: with new players, a new identity is formed. If the young talent can rally around the seasoned experience, another national championship may be in sight. The `attack' for number eleven, and an unprecedented 4-Peat, may already be underway.
This is the first in series of exclusive looks into the 2015-16 UConn Huskies Women's Basketball team.