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With The Greatest Class in History Leaving, Huskies Looking Ahead By Rich Elliott

POSTED April 07, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

INDIANAPOLIS – UConn seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart, and Morgan Tuck came to UConn together four years ago. They had their eyes set on achieving greatness, a form of greatness never before attained.

The magnificent trio had endured their struggles. Each time they picked themselves up and pressed forward with their sights set on winning four national championships.

When Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck walked off the court together at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter of the NCAA national championship game, their work was done. They had done it. They had led the Huskies to their fourth straight national championship with an 82-51 win over Syracuse.

“Coming off the court with Morgan and Mo, it was perfect,’’ Stewart said. “To be able to celebrate that with them, enjoy that with them and have our fans, friends and family cheering us as we walked off couldn’t have been better. We came in together so we might as well walk off the court together.

“I could hear Coach (Geno Auriemma) saying he wanted to get the subs in, and I knew it was for the three of us. To be able to show that kind of emotion as we walked off and then having a group hug with Coach, it was the way it should’ve been. With us, we do everything together. There’s no individual in our group.”

The players first embraced one another the instant they reached the sideline. They moved on for group hug with Auriemma.

Not only did they accomplish something that had not been done in the first 34 years of the NCAA tournament, they also become the winningest recruiting class in the history of Division I women’s basketball (151-5).

``It seemed like we were here for an eternity our freshman year,’’ Stewart said. ``And then the following three seasons went by like that. But to have come in with these two, to have grown with them as people, as basketball players, and become best friends with them, and then to do something that no one else has ever done with them, I keep saying `unbelievable’ as a word to describe it. But I don’t know what other word you could use. But the fact that we made history together that's going to create a connection that will never be broken.’’

Stewart, who unquestionably is one of the top players the history of the sport, will leave ranked second all-time at UConn in scoring (2,676), fourth in rebounds (1,179) and first in blocks (414). She is the only player in NCAA history to total 300 blocks and 300 assists since blocks became an official statistic in 1988, the only player to be named the Associated Press National Player of the Year three times, and the only player named Final Four Most Outstanding Player four times.

Jefferson, a two-time WBCA All-American and Nancy Lieberman Award winner as the nation’s top point guard, scored 1,532 points and is the team’s career leader in assists (659) and second in steals (353). She joins Jennifer Rizzotti as the only players in team history with at least 600 assists and 300 steals.

Tuck, who announced Wednesday that she will forgo her final year of eligibility and declare for the WNBA Draft, finishes her career with 1,298 points and 544 rebounds in 115 games.

``There's no such thing as a program without the people in it,’’ Auriemma said. ``So during their four years here they are the program in some ways, as the older players were before them that they played with. So without them there is no opportunity to do stuff like this. It just wouldn’t happen. And now, for me personally, what they’ve meant is they've taught me a lot about trust. It’s hard to trust players in today’s day and age. It's hard to trust people. And I'm a trusting guy. I trust everybody until the time when they can't be trusted. It's almost like they never said it. We never had a team meeting or individual meeting where they came up and said, `Trust me, Coach.’ No. But they made me just trust them. There was no anxiety on my part that they wouldn’t live up to the expectations. They’ve taught me a lot in these last two years, especially.’’

Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck won their final 75 games and 122 of 123 since a 61-59 loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament final March 12, 2013. This season they accounted for 51.9 percent of the scoring, 41.5 percent of the rebounding and 60.2 percent of the assists for the Huskies (38-0).

``You could write a novel about this one,’’ UConn sophomore Kia Nurse said. ``They have influenced me in so many ways. I’m fortunate enough to be around them each and every day and learn how to conduct myself on the court, learn how to conduct myself off the court, how to get better at this, how to be successful. And to have that in your back pocket, to have three people who work as hard as they do, who have put blood, sweat and tears into our program you can’t put words to that.’’

The program’s standard of excellence was further fortified by Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck. With their departure, Nurse, fellow sophomore Gabby Williams and freshmen Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson inherit the primary responsibility of having to emerge as leaders for UConn next season.

``This might be the biggest (transition) in the sense that when that other group left – Asjha (Jones), Tamika (Williams), Swin (Cash), (Sue Bird) – we had Diana (Taurasi) coming back, and I thought, `Hey, we're starting out the season with the best player in the country. How bad can that be,’’’ Auriemma said. ``These three leaving, the rest of the players coming back are in for a rude awakening. But you can’t disregard what all this, the impact that it has on the players coming back. And it will last for a while. But then obviously it will … They'll have to earn it like these other guys. But we don't have anybody in the program right now that's a Stewie or a Tuck or Moriah coming back. So it's going to be really, really one of the more difficult adjustments that we've had in the time that I've been there. But it's OK. I'm kind of looking forward to it. I really am. I'm really looking forward to it. There's a lot of new stories to be written by our group.’’

Stewart expressed confidence that the Huskies will not experience a dramatic drop-off in the absence of the Big Three.

``Out of respect for us and out of respect for the other players who have played in this program, they’re not going to want to let us down,” Stewart said. ``Maybe they don’t have as strong of a connection with former alums, but they played with us. They know what we did. They know what we sacrificed. And now the ball is in their hands to take care of that. We are handing the torch down to them if you want to look at it that way. They are going to be just fine.’’

Samuelson is UConn’s top returning scorer heading into next season (11.0). Nurse averaged 9.3 points and was fourth on the team in assists (2.7) this season. Williams averaged 8.8 points and was third on the team in rebounding (5.6). Collier averaged 6.8 points and was fourth in rebounding (5.2).

``I think all of us this year grew in so many ways, the younger players,” Samuelson said. “There was definitely a huge difference between the seniors and the younger players, but we all learned as much as we could from them. Now it’s just us realizing that we can’t hide behind them. We have to be what they did for us.’’

The Huskies will also welcome three recruits – Molly Bent, a 5-foot-9 guard from Centerville, Mass.; Crystal Dangerfield, a 5-6 point guard from Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and Kyla Irwin, a 6-2 forward from Lemont, Pa.

Dangerfield, who was named a McDonald’s and WBCA All American, is the lynch pin of the class. She averaged 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists at Blackman High this season. She is a three-time state Gatorade Player of the Year.

 Irwin is the all-time leading scorer at State College (Pa.) High with 2,032 points.

Tabor Academy coach William Becker does not keep statistics. However, Bent scored 1,001 points in three seasons at Barnstable (Mass.) High before transferring to Tabor. She earned a starting role at Barnstable when she was in eighth grade.

“Our seniors have taught us,” Williams said. ``They have taught us how to be successful at UConn and how to be great leaders and great teammates. The one thing we’ll definitely take from them is how poised they are and how well they play under pressure and in big situations. So now it’ll be up to us to do that next year.”

The greatest four-year stretch in the history of Division I women’s basketball is complete. Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck leave with a list of accomplishments that may never be duplicated.

However, just because they are gone does not mean the expectations change. The Huskies will be expected to contend for their 12th national championship next season.

Nurse would not have it any other way.

``Who doesn’t like a challenge,’’ Nurse said. ``We take them as they come here.’’

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