Chong hits the shot of her career plus notes from NYC.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK: It felt good when it left her hand.
Felt even better when it found the bottom of the net.
University of Connecticut junior Saniya Chong recalled how she felt when she connected on perhaps the biggest shot of her three year career, a three-point dagger to the heart of any thoughts of a University of Maryland win late in the Huskies 83-73 win on Monday night in the Maggie Dixon Classic.
“It really did feel good,” Chong said, “I was just hoping it went in.”
The shot, with 40 seconds left and Maryland within four at 75-71, was clearly one the junior and her team needed.
Chong has been one of those players who Huskie Nation have hoped elevated her game to a UConn-like level but injuries, like the one she is battling this year in her knee, have held her back.
She is a very necessary piece of the2015-2016 puzzle, especially against a team like Maryland, who came to New York as the number one scoring team in women’s colleges’ basketball and made life very uncomfortable for UConn at times at Madison Square Garden.
“They were pushing the ball up and down the court in the first half,” Chong said, “We struggled a little because they were getting wide open layups. We knew we had to be tougher and we knew what we had to do.”
Every time the Huskies looked to put the Terrapins away, the fifth ranked team in the country had an answer making the Chong trey, set up by a driving Kia Nurse who drew three defenders in before kicking the ball out on the wing to a wide open teammate, one she will not soon forget.
Growing up just 36 miles from MSG made this a home game of sorts for Chong who attended high school at Ossining High School and averaged nearly 35 points in her career.
Head coach Geno Auriemma was thrilled with the late make but also with other facets of his junior guards play.
“She played well just before that shot too,” Auriemma said, “She played well in the first half, she did a lot of good things for us. She hasn’t been able to practice and we didn’t know if she was going to be able to play. It wasn’t until game time that the decision was made that she could play. She spent the entire pre-game stuff in the training room with Rosemary (Ragle) working on her.”
An effective Chong give the already talent-rich Huskies an additional option.
“It makes a huge difference having her out there,” Auriemma said, “It’s another guard, it’s another defender another offensive player. So if we can get her back now on a regular basis that changes a lot of what we are doing.”
NOTES: Getting his team a high level of competition is sometimes a challenge for UConn but what they take away from it can only help them down the line.
“Sometimes we make it look real easy,” Auriemma said, “And we try to explain to our players that it’s not easy, it’s not going to be easy. A game like today reminds all of us that this is not supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be really hard when you play really good teams.”
The Terrapins, along with Notre Dame and DePaul are all teams who have pushed the Huskies to play at a higher level and Maryland brought a special brand of trouble with them in NYC.
“Maryland is a really tough match up for us because they are so big inside” Auriemma said, “And we can’t handle that inside unless we get some help. Then the minute the help, they have guys who can make you pay for it. Knocking in three’s.”
---Monday night’s game was a rematch of the team’s semi-final matchup in the Final Four a year ago, won by the Huskies, 81-58 and the head coach has noticed some differences with this year’s team while recognizing some of his own team’s shortcomings.
“I think they are much better balanced then they were last year,” Auriemma said, “I think they’re a lot harder to match up with. We’re still trying to figure out how we are going to go forward in games like this you miss what Kia Stokes would do defensively. Brionna Jones was 12 for 14, I don’t think that would happen if we had Kia. And then we don’t make enough three’s because we lost a great three-point shooter (Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis) and we haven’t had anybody step up and fill that role yet. So, there’s still some things we need to figure out and a game like this helps us do that.”
---Transfer Natalie Butler, who had to sit out last season because of the switch and all of this year with an injured finger, may finally see the hardwood in live competition.
“It’s gotten better every single day,” Auriemma said, “There was a point of time at which we talked about it that today could have been it but not having played, I didn’t want today to be the first day. In this environment, against a really good team. I don’t think it would have been fair to Natalie. All things staying the same, Wednesday will probably be her first real opportunity to get some playing time.”
UConn takes on AAC foe Cincinnati on Wednesday night on the road.
The thrill of playing at the ‘World’s Most Famous Arena’ is not lost on Auriemma.
“Each and every time we come down here,” Auriemma said, “It still feels really important. It feels like you’re in and important venue and an important event that doesn’t feel like just any other game. I remember when we came down here and played Ohio State and we won our 88th game in a row and that was a big deal. Every time we have come here, before our since, it just feels different when you walk in here, it’s just a different vibe that you get. I thought the crowd was great it really felt good, it really felt like you’re in a major league place in a major league city playing against a really good team. I think the fans that came saw two really good teams playing.”
---Playing in the Maggie Dixon game is a special event for any team. The former Army women’s basketball coach, who passed from an enlarged heart at the young age of 28, was an inspiration to all that knew her and took her Army team to a first ever appearance in the NCAA’s in 2005.
Auriemma knew Dixon and has a special connection with her family, many of whom were on hand on Monday night.
“I saw Maggie’s (Dixon) mom after the game,” Auriemma said, “It just doesn’t get to be like, ho-hum. It’s always important. I wish we could do it every year, I wish we could play here every year.”