Roughly 26 years ago, UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma was recruiting Tamika Williams-Jeter, a heralded recruit, to come play for his Huskies. At the time, Connecticut had just one national championship to their name and fewer resources than many of the other schools recruiting the forward.
“When we were recruiting Tamika, that was a great memory,” Auriemma recalled. “I remember when you could send a plane to go get people back in the day. A lot of the big schools thought they were ahead of the game because they would send an airplane to pick you up and fly you for an official visit. She was all excited about that happening at some of the other schools, so I mailed her one of those airplanes you put together with cardboard and said ‘I’m sending the plane for you.’”
That paper airplane was enough to convince Williams-Jeter to attend school in Storrs, Connecticut, where she proceeded to win championships in 2000 and 2002 behind career averages of 10 points and five rebounds. And the airplane? Williams-Jeter’s mom still has it. Now, all these years later, Williams-Jeter is the head coach of her hometown Dayton Flyers’ women’s basketball team, who comes to Hartford, Connecticut for UConn’s season opener Wednesday.
In Williams-Jeter’s first year, the Flyers took many steps back from their 26-6 campaign the season before. They lost their first 10 games and didn’t pick up a Division I victory until January. They closed the year with seven wins to their name, making it to the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
One of the bright spots of last season’s team was Mariah Perez, a graduate student who had a breakout campaign. She averaged 12 points and nine boards, which was enough to gain her the team’s most-improved player honors. This year, Perez was tabbed to the A-10 third team.
Freshman center Eve Fiala is also a player to look out for in the matchup. Fiala, from Indiana, Pennsylvania, is 6 foot, 4 inches tall and garnered high-major offers while being recruited. In particular, she looked at Ohio State while Williams-Jeter was an assistant there. Fiala decided to follow her to Dayton, where she is set to be a key player from early on, thanks to her size. Her and fellow freshman forward Riley Rismiller are the only two players on the roster above 6-foot-2-inches.
For UConn, they’re coming off a dominant exhibition against Southern Connecticut State. The Huskies didn’t allow more than 12 points in a quarter and displayed their excellent depth. No one was on the floor for more than 23 minutes, but the most electric player was in for just 12.
That player is Paige Bueckers, who notched seven points, seven assists and four rebounds on 3-4 shooting. She made the most of each moment and was particularly impressive as a distributor. It’s easy to get caught up in exhibition results, but Bueckers looked great. She hopes to be in line for her first fully healthy season since her freshman year and will likely increase her minutes against Dayton.
Another player worth looking out for is Aaliyah Edwards, an AP third-team All-American last year. Edwards has full control of the team’s frontcourt and is potentially in position for a more prolific senior year. The Huskies appear to be running a smaller lineup with wing Caroline Ducharme stepping in the starting five for graduating center Dorka Juhász. That leaves Edwards as the tallest in the rotation at 6-foot-3-inches, giving her all the opportunities down low, which combines nicely with her evolving game outside the paint.
Ducharme is the last Husky to keep an eye on, another player who suffered mightily from injuries last year. This ultimately led to a worse sophomore season, after she scored 10 per game as a freshman. In the exhibition, Ducharme tallied 10 points and three steals, numbers she will look to build on. She also struggled to connect on her attempts from deep, going 1-4. The Massachusettsan will be a key factor in whether the Huskies win this year’s championship and would benefit tremendously from a strong start.
The contest will tip off at 7 p.m. EST at the XL Center in downtown Hartford and can be viewed on SNY.