Morgan Tuck: A vital part of the Huskies master plan. Story by Rich Elliott.
By Rich Elliott
STORRS – It takes a special type of player to thrive as a member of the UConn women’s basketball team. Often times there are other players who soak up the majority of the spotlight. Those in the backdrop must be selfless, willing to share the glory with their teammates for the betterment of the team.
Sophomore Morgan Tuck is a prime example of a player who has firmly placed winning games ahead of her own publicity train. When the top players are mentioned on this year’s UConn team it is reigning National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, All-American sharpshooter Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and soon-to-be All-American point guard Moriah Jefferson that are touted first.
A lack of attention nationally is not an issue for Tuck. It is not an issue for the Huskies either.
They know internally exactly how talented Tuck is and exactly how much she means to this team. And she proved it again Saturday against 16th-seeded St. Francis Brooklyn in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Tuck delivered career-highs of 26 points and eight assists and also added three rebounds to lead top-seeded UConn to an 89-33 victory before 3,666 at Gampel Pavilion. She was 12-of-13 shooting from the field and 2-of 2 from the free throw line in 29 minutes.
"We have three players that get a lot of attention, rightly so,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Stewie and K and Moriah are really, really good. They might be the three best players in the country at their positions. And then, `Oh, yeah, they’ve got Morgan Tuck, too.’ So sometimes that’s just the way perception is of what our team is. But within our team we know. We know what Morgan does for us and we wouldn’t be where we are today without her. And we couldn’t win it … If we hope to win this thing it’s really not going to happen without Morgan Tuck. It’s not going to happen.’’
The Huskies improved to 23-2 in the first round of the NCAA tournament all-time, winning 22 straight games. They have not lost their tournament opener since falling to Louisville 74-71 at Gampel Pavilion in 1993.
UConn will meet eighth-seeded Rutgers (23-9) in the second round Monday at Gampel Pavilion (9 p.m.; ESPN2). Behind 21 points from Tyler Scaife and Kahleah Copper, the Scarlet Knights defeated ninth-seeded Seton Hall 79-66 in the first game Saturday.
Tuck, a 6-foot-2 red-shirt sophomore forward, assisted on a 3-pointer by Kia Nurse and a layup by Breanna Stewart (17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) to open the game for UConn. She then scored 12 of the team’s next 15 points in a span of 4:12.
Tuck had 20 points (9-of-10 FG), two rebounds and five assists in 17 minutes in the first half as the Huskies built a 47-14 lead at halftime.
"When I watched them during the year I was really impressed with how much she’s improved,’’ St. Francis Brooklyn coach John Thurston said. "People talk about Breanna Stewart and the others, but she’s such a tough defend. So tough around the basket. Great touch. Very strong. Great defender. If you’re as good as they are and you have someone like her … I thought she was really outstanding. She’s an outstanding player.’’
Tuck made her first five shots against St. Francis Brooklyn and her final seven in her first NCAA tournament game since the 2013 final against Louisville in New Orleans.
"Morgan is huge to this team, and I think she gets overlooked a lot of times,’’ Stewart said. "But I think she really wants to make her mark on this year’s tournament, and you can really tell (Saturday) from the way she played and the way she impacted the game not only just with points but by getting other people involved that it’s going to be huge to have her.”
Said Jefferson: "Morgan was a beast, like always. She makes it really easy as a point guard just to dump it in. She’s going to knock down those layups and even step out on the outside and knock in 3s. Not even that … she had eight assists so she was passing the ball well. She was making shots. And she played great.’’
Tuck was limited to just eight games last season due to an injured right knee that required season-ending surgery Jan. 30, 2014. The brace on her right knee is a reminder of the journey she has traveled to reach this point.
While Tuck basically downplayed the overall significance of returning to the NCAA tournament, there is little question that it was a big deal for her. And to perform the way she did made the night that much sweeter.
"It was pretty hard sitting out watching pretty much just being a cheerleader,’’ Tuck said. "But it means a lot to actually be out there and actually helping my teammates. I think that was the hardest thing not being able to help them. We weren’t really deep last year. And now to be able to be out there and contribute means a lot.’’
For Tuck, her performance against the Terriers was a continuation of her stellar play in three games during The American tournament when she averaged 14.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in being named to the all-tournament team. She had 17 points (8-of-11 FG) and a career-high 10 rebounds in registering her first career double-double against South Florida in the tournament final March 9.
"I’ve been rooting for Morgan since the day she got here,’’ Auriemma said. "It was unfortunate what happened last year. And we got lucky, to be honest. We got lucky during the (NCAA) tournament that nothing happened and that her not playing didn’t cost us. But for as long as I’ve seen Morgan, and for as long as she’s been at Connecticut, it seems to me that the bigger the game the better she plays.’’
Whether or not Tuck is part of any conversation regarding the top players on her team or nationally is irrelevant as far as she is concerned. She simply does her job game in and game out with one goal in mind – helping UConn win.
Should Tuck help the Huskies earn five more wins over the next two-plus weeks she will again be a national champion. And that will be worth talking about.
“I think when you come here, that is something you have to accept,” Tuck said. “You’re not going to get 30 every night. Some teams have one player that averages 25 a game, but that’s not going to happen here. That’s why we’re so good because we have players who could do that who are very unselfish and will make the right play. I think that’s what separates us from a lot of teams is that we have the potential to do that. I think each of us do. Yet we all know when it’s time to be more aggressive and when it’s time to get other people going.”