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Jefferson Chasing Assists Record As UConn Chases Another National Championship By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 25, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

BRIDGEPORT – Moriah Jefferson was one of the most sought after players in the Class of 2012. Vic Schaefer was quick to point out Friday just how hard he recruited her while he was the associate head coach at Texas A&M.

Jefferson was a player Schaefer, who is now the head coach at Mississippi State, wanted. He remembers watching her dominate at the AAU level with the DFW Elite in Dallas, knowing that she was a special player.

Jefferson, of course, committed to UConn. And Saturday when fifth-seeded Mississippi State faces No. 1 UConn in the NCAA Bridgeport regional semifinals at Webster Bank Arena (11:30 a.m.; ESPN), Schaefer will get another up-close look at the Huskies’ All-American point guard.

``She was a great player in high school,’’ Schaefer said. ``She’s obviously had a tremendous career and is one heck of a basketball player. She’s smart, intelligent. Just getting outside of what she possesses from a physical standpoint, how quick and fast she is … Morgan Williams, my point guard, is really fast. She’s the fastest kid I've ever coached. And I’m sure Moriah might be the fastest kid (UConn coach Geno Auriemma) has ever coached. Because I can tell you on film, and I’m fixing to get a dose of it in reality tomorrow, she looks like every bit as fast as Morgan, if not faster. So a special kid, no doubt about it.’’

Jefferson is looking to lead the Huskies (34-0) into the Elite Eight for the 11th straight season and their 22nd overall. Leading is what she has done best since her sophomore season. And with potentially four games remaining in her career, she is closing in on becoming UConn’s all-time leader in assists.

Jefferson is currently third in team history with 634 assists, trailing Jennifer Rizzotti by three for second place. Diana Taurasi holds the team record with 648.

``I think assists are one of the biggest things I that focus on here,’’ Jefferson said. ``I play with some of the best players in the country. So any time I can make sure I’m getting them the ball on time and setting them up for a bucket means a lot to me. So if I could come in and set that record in front of all the players that have been here before it would mean a lot to me.’’

The list of players that have played point guard at UConn is astounding. Rizzotti, Sue Bird, Taurasi, Renee Montgomery are among the best ever at their position. Jefferson will receive the same consideration.

She is a currently a finalist for the Dawn Staley Award, which honors the nation’s top guard, and the Nancy Lieberman Award, which honors the nation’s top point guard, the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy and Wade Trophy.

Jefferson won the Lieberman Award last season when she was also named to the WBCA All-America Team. She was inducted into the Huskies of Honor on Senior Day Feb. 27.

``I would probably say the first thing is her want to be, her desire to be great and her willingness to work at that,’’ UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph said. ``No one’s harder on Moriah than she is on herself. And I think she’s gotten a lot better over the course of her time here, and it’s all because she wanted to. She put the time in. She never takes a day off, whether it’s mentally or physically. She’s just never satisfied. And you look at what she’s accomplished since she’s been here it’s very easy to be satisfied with that, but she’s not. And I think if you’re talking about being an elite player and being one of the few that could be considered an all-time great, especially at UConn where there’s been some players. That’s something that she has in common with a lot of those guys.’’

Jefferson is averaging career-highs in scoring (12.6), assists (5.4) and minutes (30.5). She is ranked seventh nationally in assists to turnover ratio (2.89).

As one would expect, Jefferson has been even better through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, averaging 17.0 points, 6.0 assists and 2.5 steals in 28.5 minutes in wins over 16th-seeded Robert Morris and ninth-seeded Duquesne. She has committed one turnover in 57 minutes in this span.

``I’m just glad she’s still here,’’ Auriemma said. ``When I saw her as a freshman I had my doubts in the sense that when somebody hands you the ball at Connecticut and they say, `OK, you're in charge,’ that’s a lot. Freshman year, I think she was too caught up in being away from home, how tough this is, how much thought goes into playing that position at Connecticut, how to play with five great players, four other great players on the floor. It was a lot. But somewhere during the NCAA tournament her sophomore year, it was like, `I got this.’

``And then every year she's added something to her game. And the one thing that she’s added the most, other than the fact that she knocks down shots, is she’s gotten smarter every day. Every day she gets a little bit smarter as a player. Every great point guard is like every great quarterback in the NFL. They're smarter than everybody else. Everybody can throw it. The guys that are great are the guys that are smarter. And she’s smarter. Every day.’’

Overall, Jefferson has established career-highs by reaching double figures in scoring in seven straight NCAA tournament games and generating at least five assists in nine straight games. Her career assist-to-turnover ratio in 20 NCAA games is 3.1 (81:26).

Former Tennessee guard Laurie Milligan is the lone player in Division I history to appear in 24 NCAA tournament games (1995-98). Should UConn advance to the tournament final in Indianapolis April 5 Jefferson would join her.  

``Moriah’s meant a lot to this team, obviously,’’ UConn senior Breanna Stewart said. ``We all came in together. We went through the adversity our freshman year and then from sophomore year on she took control of the team. She took the team under her belt, basically, and wanted to be the leader. She wanted to be the floor general and it’s awesome to see her growth throughout the entire four years. And I’m sure she could say the same thing about us (Stewart and Morgan Tuck), but the way she’s developed, the way she’s matured, the way she was able to use her speed in positive ways and just the development of her jump shot, her midrange game. She’s unguardable.’’

Jefferson is also ranked third in team history in steals (346) and has scored 1,491 points. Rizzotti is the only other UConn player to amass at least 600 assists and 300 steals in their career.

Along with exceptional talent, there is a toughness and a competitiveness that has aided Jefferson in her ascension to the top of her game. There are less than two weeks remaining in her career. Records could fall.

``She’ll rip your heart right out of your chest,’’ Ralph said. ``And she is a little peanut, and she still looks like she’s in the eighth grade. But there’s no one that’s more competitive than she is, and it started back in high school. She played defense like that back in high school. She’s just a tough kid and she’s a great kid to be around. I’m really going to miss her. It’s been a lot of fun to coach her and to watch her grow. I can’t wait to see what she does in the future.’’

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