Special Day for Lawlor, Chong and UConn. By Richard Zalusky.
POSTED February 27, 2017
STORRS -- Frequently during practice senior Tierney Lawlor jokes with Katie Lou Samuelson - that one day, she'll hit her up with an assist.
Fittingly on Senior Day that time came just 14 seconds into the first quarter Saturday afternoon.
When the shot went through the basket while Samuelson was fouled on the play the entire bench of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team jumped to their feet in excitement of what they had just witnessed along with the capacity crowd of 10,167 that had filed into Gampel Pavilion.
"That was a fun shot," Lawlor said following the 103rd consecutive victory for No.1 UConn (28-0, 15-0 AAC) in a 91-48 rout of Memphis (13-15, 6-9) in the next-to-last American Athletic Conference regular season game for the Huskies.
"I always stay with Lou after practice and feed her the ball while she's putting up shots,” Lawlor said. "It was just real sweet for that to happen." It was the same feeling that went through the mind of Tierney's fellow senior classmate - Saniya Chong.
"That made things even more special seeing 'T' give her the assist," Chong said. "It was priceless." Both Lawlor and Chong have experienced different paths during their time in Storrs.
That path for Lawlor was unexpected.
Following a 3-sport high school career at Ansonia High School where she played soccer, basketball and softball, Lawlor - who will receive her degree in sustainable farm and ranch management this May – headed 70.4 miles away to the Storrs campus with academics - her original major was civil engineering - the focus in her thought process.
It was during the fall of 2013 when that all changed when Breanna Stewart put a message out via Twitter that UConn - with just nine scholarship players - was actively seeing walk-on candidates. Lawlor talked it over with her parents - Ellen and John - UConn Class of 1988 graduates. For Lawlor, who idolized one of the all-time greats at play for Geno Auriemma - Diana Taurasi - the consensus of the talk with her parents was that it was a good idea.
"I didn't know what to expect," Lawlor said earlier in the week at practice. "I kind of just went with the flow. It's been great. I wouldn't change anything. I have enjoyed it, the experiences, the people. It has been amazing and I have been very fortunate for the opportunity I was given." Chong knows first-hand how special Lawlor is.
"Even though she came out as a walk-on, she means so much more to all of us," Chong said. "T is out there always teaching. She's coaching me and telling me things I need to do. That really helps. She's always dedicated and always working hard. You look over at the bench and she's always on her knee. There's never a moment when she's just sitting down. It means a whole lot." Lawlor - who made her first career start against Memphis - followed up that initial assist to Samuelson with a screen on the next UConn possession that freed up Katie Lou for a lay-up.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Lawlor fed junior center Natalie Butler for a lay-up before diving to the floor to win a loose ball for an offensive rebound that kept a possession alive - in the final minute with UConn ahead by 46 points.
Lawlor had several opportunities to put points on the scoreboard. Four times she missed on 3-point attempts - two of which were blocked – as Memphis seemed determined to keep her from putting her name into the scoring column.
"I wouldn't say it was frustrating," Lawlor said. "I guess you could say I gave them a couple of blocks to pad their stats." It's not scoring that matters as Lawlor is more content to grab rebounds, pass the ball to an open teammate - she said her two assists were the highlights for her - get her hands into the passing lane for a deflection or come up with a steal - which she did that led to a pair of foul shots for freshman Kyla Irwin. Senior Day also had a familiar recipe - a UConn romp.
Samuelson scored 23 of her 29 points in the first half - moving eight points away from becoming the third UConn player this season to reach 1,000 career points - Naphessa Collier added 19 points with six rebounds, Gabby Williams lit up the box score across the board (8 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal) and Chong – the nation's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio - put together a strong performance in her final regular season home game - scoring 14 points with seven assists and two steals.
Speaking of numbers - in the last four years - UConn has put up many mind-boggling, eye-popping and jaw-dropping ones. Consider that Lawlor and Chong each have three national championship rings and the opportunity still exists to be part of a combined eight AAC regular season and tournament titles and also be part of the winningest senior class in NCAA Division I history.
The Huskies own the top-eight four-year stretches and nine of the top 11. Lawlor and Chong are currently 144-1 that ranks tied for sixth. The all-time mark (151-5) is held by last year's iconic senior trio - Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck and it would be broken ifUConn punches its ticket to an NCAA record 10th straight Final Four with a victory in the Elite Eight - that would take place at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport on Monday, Mar. 27.
"That's pretty darn good, huh," Auriemma said. "They [Lawlor and Chong] will be able to tell all their friends and relatives for the rest of their lives that they were 144-1. I love it. It's great. The first thing I said when I walked into the coach’s room was, 'Saniya and T have never lost a home game'". That's pretty ridiculous when you think about it. It's pretty crazy. "Anybody that can last four years in our program and be contributing... that's a hell of a thing. Senior Night is big at other schools, but there's something about Senior Night at UConn that is pretty special given some of the seniors that have been over the years."
Now, what does Lawlor think the day was like for those watching on television back in Ansonia or those lucky enough to have made the journey to Gampel Pavilion on Saturday?
"It was probably exciting for them," Lawlor said. "Just to be able to come up here and say, 'Yeah, I know her. Yeah, I hang out with her at home."
What a special day it was ...