When Kyla Irwin went down on Sunday, I immediately thought to myself, “That’s it. That’s her career.”
She was too high in the air, she came down too hard and she was in too much visible pain for it to be anything minor. I couldn’t be more disappointed to be right. I wish I had been wrong.
Monday morning, UConn announced Irwin did indeed fracture her elbow and will undergo surgery to repair it. This effectively ends her season and, seeing as she’s a senior, her career.
She deserved so much better than to go out like this.
In her four years in Storrs, Irwin was never meant to be a starter or a key rotational piece. She didn’t even get a start until her junior year, and averaged just 7.8, 9.4 and 10.3 minutes per game in her first three years, respectively. A lot of those came at the end of blowouts, seeing as UConn ends games by halftime seemingly three-quarters of the time.
This year, she was called on to play a much larger role, starting 18 games while the team waited for head coach Geno Auriemma to feel comfortable enough to start freshman Anna Makurat.
She played crucial minutes, at one point playing as many as 36 minutes in a single game despite playing more than 20 just twice in her previous three years.
Then, when it was time for Makurat to start, Irwin went back to the bench, assuming her role of playing about 11-14 minutes per game, usually when the outcome was already decided.
She averaged a career-high 16.6 minutes per game this year but was consistently playing over half the game for a significant stretch in the middle of the season. Her stats don’t jump off the page — 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per game — but she was a role player, and she played that role to perfection.
Often described as one of the grittiest players on the team, I don’t remember the last time someone on UConn took charge who wasn’t wearing No. 25, and it was no rare occurrence either.
But above all else she was the prime example of what a teammate should be. She was always loud and excited, cheering her teammates on whether she was on the court with them or on the bench.
“She does all the things you don’t really see,” senior Crystal Dangerfield said. “Don’t show up on the stat board … she’s just the ultimate team player as well. That’s why it’s really frustrating that it happened because she’s a great person off the court and on the court.”
It hasn’t been an easy season for her either, as Auriemma noted following the game, referencing her foot that needs surgery following the season and a recent broken finger.
“That’s a lot for a kid that loves the game and brings a lot to our team, on and off the court,” Auriemma said. “She’s a kid that does impact your team, whether she’s playing or not, whether she has the ball or not, whether she’s shooting well or not, she has an infectious kind of personality that makes your team better. That’s rare in today’s day and age. We’re going to miss that going forward.”
There weren’t many games left in the season, but there was another conference championship game and NCAA tournament ahead. There was another opportunity to play on the national stage in the biggest games of the entire season, and with her being the second person off the bench for UConn, she would likely have gotten a decent chance to take the court in them.
“She had another run at a national championship in front of her,” junior Megan Walker said. “It was tough for us to see and we’re going to keep that on our shoulders as we move forward.”
Sports can be cruel, and this seems just flat out unfair. Now, the Huskies are going to be playing with an extra chip on their shoulders.
“If we were to sulk so much and end up losing the game I think she would be hurt by that,” Dangerfield said. “As much as we know Kyla would want to be out there on the floor, we know we have a job to do and were going to do that job for her.”