A golden summer has Kia Nurse poised for a breakout sophomore season at UConn. By Rich Elliott.
STORRS – Gaining a leg up on UConn senior star Breanna Stewart is a not an easy thing to accomplish. She is regarded as the best player in the nation. She is a three-time national champion and a winner of multiple gold medals as a member of USA Basketball.
Still, no matter how decorated Stewart’s resume might be, it is sophomore guard Kia Nurse who holds bragging rights at this point.
Facing Stewart and fellow UConn teammate Moriah Jefferson in the gold medal game of the Pan Am Games in Toronto July 20, it was Nurse who proved to be the best player on the floor in leading Canada to an 81-73 win. It was the first women’s basketball gold medal in Pan Am Games history for Canada.
``It was pretty surreal,’’ said Nurse, who finished with a game-high 33 points. ``To have the game that I did and to play in front of that electrifying crowd and kind of have that historic event that we've never had a medal before and, first of all, to be gold. It was just absolutely incredible. Obviously, bittersweet. You want them to do well because they’re your teammates and because we’re really great friends here. But we were happy for us.’’
Nurse said that if the game comes up in conversation now they share a hearty laugh together. Nurse was 10-of-17 from the field in the game, 11-of-12 from the free throw line and was involved in a collision that injured Jefferson.
“It was a bittersweet feeling,” Stewart said. “You want to see a teammate play well, but she wasn’t on my team. So it kind of messed things up for me a little bit.”
Said Jefferson: “I didn’t even know what adjustments to make. Nobody was expecting 33 out of her. Maybe 20. I was expecting 20, honestly. I wasn’t expecting 33. So when she did that I was just like ... What are we going to do about it?’ But then she hit me in the head with her extremely hard head, and then I wasn’t happy with her anymore. So I still have a grudge with her for that one.”
The breakthrough win over the U.S. capped a remarkable tournament run for Nurse and launched what proved to be a highly beneficial growth spurt for her game during the off-season. She averaged a team-high 13.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 25.8 minutes in the Pan Am Games, joining Charde Houston (2007) and Mel Thomas (2007) as the only UConn players to win gold at the event.
Less than a month later in Edmonton, Nurse totaled 20 points, three rebounds and three assists to power Canada to an 82-66 win over Cuba in the gold medal game of the FIBA Americas Championship for Women Aug. 16. The win earned Canada a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Nurse again led Canada in scoring (seventh overall) during the six-game tournament (13.0) and also averaged 3.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 25.3 minutes.
``It’s been extremely special,’’ Nurse said. ``For me to come out and play the way that I did and with the confidence that I did is something that was really great for me. It was something that I needed to definitely kind of learn from and continue to take into this next season coming up. And to do in front of Canada was a whole lot more fun.’’
Nurse said that her gold medal from the Pan Am Games is sitting at home in a metal box along with one won by her brother and Edmonton Oilers prospect, Darnell, at the World Juniors in January.
``Mine is bigger than that one,’’ Nurse joked. ``I went home in the summer and I was like, `Whoa, we’ve got a medal box now?’ And (her parents) were like, `Yeah.’ `And I was like, `OK, I guess I’ll put mine in there too.’ But, yeah, it’s at home safe and sound with mom and dad.’’
Nurse returns to UConn as a different player. She is filled with confidence. Her ability to get to the basket and finish has improved. And so have her skills defensively.
``I would say I’m more confident in myself in the abilities and the understanding that there are things I can do and not to second-guess myself and kind of let things get to me mentally,’’ Nurse said. ``So it’s definitely been a growth period.’’
Stewart said: ``I think it helped her a lot. I would say the off-season helped her more mentally than physically. We all knew she could play like that. But for her to see herself play like that game after game in the FIBA tournament, it definitely helped her. And, hopefully she just keeps it going throughout the season.”
Nurse, who was named The American Freshman of the Year, averaged 10.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals in 39 games for the Huskies last season (36 starts). She joins Jefferson in what is arguably the top backcourt in the nation as UConn chases an NCAA record fourth straight national championship this season.
``We know she’ll come in and step up and do exactly what she needs to do,” Jefferson said.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma has long said that a player destined for greatness customarily makes a sizeable leap from the end of their freshman season leading into their sophomore season. Nurse appears to be right on target following her golden run in Canada this summer.
“She already took that jump this summer,” Jefferson said. “Now it is just about withstanding it or keeping it up this season. It’s going to be really hard, but I’m expecting her to do it. We’re all proud of her.”