For the first time in four years, the UConn women’s basketball team will take the floor without Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. Despite losing three of the top players in the country, the four-time defending national champions are ready to return to action. The Huskies will open exhibition play against Indiana University of Pennsylvania at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at Gampel Pavilion.
“We lost three amazing people,” Senior Saniya Chong said of Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson graduating. “We have to think of this year, think about the team that we have right now. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be hard.”
It won’t be easy to replace those three stars that helped the program reach unprecedented heights, but UConn still retains its fair share of talent. Sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson led the Huskies in three-pointers scored and shot 39 percent from beyond the arc. Kia Nurse averaged 9.3 points per game last season and is the only returning Husky with more than 100 assists. Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier will provide scoring and rebounding from all over the court.
Those four will be starting Tuesday night for the Huskies, joined by senior guard Saniya Chong, who hopes to begin her final season with a good performance after three seasons of inconsistency.
“The past three years I haven’t really done much, so I want to help my team in all aspects. This year, I’m just coming out and working really each and every day,” Chong said. “I want to be that person that [underclassmen] come to…I’ve been through everything in the past three years, I have a lot to tell.”
The Crimson Hawks posted a 21-9 record last season, reaching the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Championship. IUP was picked to finish second in Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference West Division coaches’ poll after winning the West division for the 2014-15 season, Tom McConnell’s first year as head coach.
“Being a Division II program, you have scholarships and you’re pretty successful, that’s the next best thing to bringing a Division I program in here and scrimmaging in front of a closed house,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I want to play good teams, they happen to be good and they happen to be good every year.”
UConn’s matchup against the Crimson Hawks will mark the first action for the Huskies freshman class of Molly Bent, Crystal Dangerfield and Kyla Irwin. While none of the three will start against IUP, all three will be relied on in some way this season to help take pressure off of the starters.
“I think we’ll have fun with it. We’re excited,” Dangerfield said of the collegiate debut for the freshman class. “It’s exciting to have our team play an actual game together.”
While it is unique to say that the four-time defending champions have a chip on their shoulder heading into this season, the team has just that. The loss of three of the best players in women’s college basketball will take its toll on UConn, but the Huskies are ready for the challenge.
“I think that once you see us on the court throughout the season, we’ll give you the show that you’ve been waiting for,” Chong said.