Torchbearers

UConn freshmen Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams and Courtney Ekmark are learning what it takes to build a dynasty.
by February 21, 2015
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An exhibition is the highlight of UConn’s annual Midnight Madness, or ‘First Night’ as it’s known in Storrs. Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie, coaches of the women’s and men’s Huskies teams, respectively, each an architect of a National Championship last season, take the helm of a bunch of Huskies co-ed ballers.

Midway through the second half of this past October’s game, a 6-0 freshman guard named Courtney Ekmark dribbled toward the top of the key and calmly asked for an on-ball screen from one of her male teammates.

“She looks at home out there,” remarked Huskies legend Rebecca Lobo, on the call for ESPN, which was streaming the event. It was as much a reference to Ekmark’s command of the situation as her ability to hang with the boys. Which made sense—Ekmark had spent the past year playing in boys leagues around her home of Phoenix, AZ. She’d practice with her younger brother’s AAU team and play in at least two games each weekend. She trained three times a week with Frank Johnson, a former NBA player and coach. She even spent a weekend working with fabled hoops guru John Lucas in Houston.

Ekmark was the top-ranked student in her class at St. Mary’s High, and after three years, she’d completed a heavy course load that allowed her flexibility. She could finish her remaining few pre-college requirements through online coursework.

She was also one of the nation’s top basketball prospects, committing to UConn before her sophomore year’s second semester wrapped. In April of her junior year, she’d traveled to New Orleans with her father, Curtis, to watch the women’s Final Four. As UConn cruised to National Title No. 8, Ekmark turned to her dad and said, of the Huskies’ scintillating play, “This has nothing to do with high school basketball.”

Ekmark had been mulling over the prospect of asking for home school in her final year before college, but that weekend sealed her decision. Her parents, initially skeptical, came on board when Ekmark, in typical fashion, presented a well-researched PowerPoint. UConn guard Moriah Jefferson had been home-schooled. Same with Tim Tebow. As long as Courtney fulfilled two requirements: making a plan, and working hard to fulfill it, they were on board.

So, with more time afforded her, Ekmark tinkered and tailored and refined her game, seeking every little thing that could prepare her for what she’d seen at the Final Four. Like many kids, Ekmark had run the gamut of youth sports: soccer, basketball, tennis, even gymnastics until she grew too tall. Unlike many kids, she tethered an uncanny discipline to her endeavors. One day, she decided she wanted to become a great shooter. So, she made a chart. Ten thousand shots later, she’d begun to see results she liked.

There were all-star games, and while some were fun, at times Ekmark would grow frustrated. Her telling take on one of these events: not enough passing. But on the way home, she’d reflect on how lucky she was to be headed to a program filled with teammates who played the right way.

This is what happens when a program has won nine National Titles through such a tremendous aesthetic. They win, and they look very good doing it. They inspire the next generation to work until they’ve deserved to counted among them.

So it goes again this season. In a Feb. 9 showdown that pitted the then-No. 2 Huskies against No. 1 South Carolina, likely their last great test before the NCAA tournament, UConn stuck to the script. Midway through the first half in Storrs came the spark. Then, the deluge. UConn transformed a three-point deficit into a 47-31 halftime lead.

Speaking with reporters following the 87-62 win, UConn’s 21st straight since an overtime defeat to Stanford in November, which snapped a 47-game win streak, Auriemma said that the possibility of playing in this kind of game convinces recruits to become Huskies. It’s the whole point of coming to this place, where pursuit of perfection is the stated goal. Test yourself against the best.

That win showed how far this year’s team has come. During that afore-mentioned First Night. Auriemma said that heading into ’14-15, he had two groups. There was the core of veterans returning from back-to-back titles, and a group of four talented but unproven newcomers, whittled to three following Sadie Edwards’s transfer in December. Auriemma knew it would need to become a cohesive group if UConn was to repeat the three-peat of the early aughts.

That means committing to the program’s quintessential brand of improvement. When Auriemma recruited Stefanie Dolson, he figured she’d contribute to UConn through her versatility on offense. Because at that stage, the 6-5 forward simply wasn’t a good rebounder. But by the time Dolson graduated last spring, she was pulling down a team-best 9.3 boards per game. She was a fundamental factor in title No. 9.

Saniya Chong, now a sophomore, experienced her own drought last season. Despite opening her UConn career with some excellent offensive performances (this is a kid who finished her high school career with a shade under 3,000 points), Auriemma saved his highest praise for a game in which she didn’t score at all. If she was going to really help UConn, she’d need to round out her game. She had to learn what it meant to be great. Setting screens and embracing stifling defense had to become part of her day-to-day arsenal.

That’s what Chong had come to UConn to do. Auriemma said recently that the 5-8 guard could have picked any number of big-time schools, and she would have been a star. But Chong wanted to fit into a team. So, she came to Storrs. She instinctively sacrificed the spotlight for the consistent pursuit of national titles.

Says Ekmark, “Every time a player goes here, they get so much better. Every day, you’re pushed, you’re tested. That’s why they get so much out of their players. That’s why I came here.”

“I would hope that every kid that comes to Connecticut wants to improve and be a better player,” Auriemma wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a pretty competitive environment. If you stay the same, your playing days are going to be over before you know it. Every day, you have to improve. That’s part of the challenge of being here.”

This season, the three freshmen have contributed in different stages. Kia Nurse, a 6-0 guard from Canada possessed with uncanny cool and drive, was a starter from the third game and checks in at second on the team in assists, steals and three-pointers made. Gabby Williams, a 5-11 guard-turned-forward from Sparks, NV, has begun to flex her muscle and athleticism in the post, showing some prodigious finishing ability around the rim. She averages 6.4 rebounds in just 17.0 minutes a game.

“Kia has been more than anyone would have any right to expect,” Auriemma wrote. He cited each freshman’s tremendous desire to improve. “Gabby has days and weeks where she looks like she’s a senior. She also has days and weeks where she looks like she’s a freshman. Right now, we’re trying to get her to understand that consistency is the name of the game in college.”

Ekmark’s campaign was wrenched by a stress reaction that caused her to miss six weeks. Since returning in early January, she has begun working her way back into the fold. “We’re still trying to figure out what works, and what role [Ekmark] is going to be able to fill,” wrote Auriemma. “She missed a bunch of weeks with a foot injury and obviously that didn’t help. Eventually, we’ll find what kind of role she will fill. It’s going to be up to her to embrace whatever role that is going to be.”

Against South Carolina, the three freshmen played a combined 24 minutes (Nurse had 19 of them). That relatively low number had more to do, however, with the sterling play of the starting five and some superb production from Chong. But when the freshmen sit, they do not sulk. They watch. From watching, they learn. Once again, UConn is applying the recipe that has produced these championship runs. Leadership passed down. When your number is called, seize the opportunity.

“Seeing games like the South Carolina game, with the whole stadium sold out, you just want to be in the center of that,” says Williams. “That’s why we came here. Every day in practice, we’re competing against the best players in America. When it comes to these big-time games, you’re ready. I wanted that challenge.”

***

Auriemma remembers the teams with Taurasi and Moore, how their greatness was revealed through the intensity of practice. Those defensive sessions when he’d pit his players against a greater number on offense. First, three-on-four. Then, three-on-five, then six. Each time the opponents were sufficiently stifled, they’d demand that Auriemma throw on one more.

There are many reasons why UConn has become the pinnacle of women’s college basketball, but that commitment is paramount. Auriemma enlists the services of all-everything All-Americans who’ve been told, as Mosqueda-Lewis said to SLAM last December, “that we’re good at it all, that we don’t need to fix anything.”

“I think that sometimes, when freshmen get here, they’re shocked at how hard it is compared to what they think it’s going to be,” Auriemma wrote. “Every high school kid in America thinks they can go to college as a freshman and be really good. Basically, the answer is, they’re out of their mind. Playing at this level, for any freshman, is really hard.”

“But they never put you in impossible situations,” Nurse says of the coaching staff. “They push your limits, but it’s so that you get better. When it comes to a game, you realize, I’ve already done this a million and a half times.” Adds Ekmark: “It’s our job to soak in what they’re saying.”

“The main thing is doing what you’re really good at,” says Williams. “This team is so talented that each person only has to do so much. For me, I’m playing in the post. I came into college without a single post move, and it was a wake-up call. But that’s where I fit into this team, so I put my trust in the coaches. They see things we don’t. They find what you’re really good at, and they find a way to make it work.”

Mosqueda-Lewis can look back at her first three years and realize she was implicitly gleaning certain aspects of leadership from the likes of Kelly Faris, Caroline Doty, Bria Hartley and Dolson. This season, Nurse notes, Moriah Jefferson will pull her aside and tell her when and where and how best to attack. “Our leaders are exceptional,” says Nurse. “[Morgan] Tuck is always talking, giving you advice. To have that trust and that understanding, it makes me feel more comfortable.”

Says Williams, “There’s nothing better than hearing something from your peer. When something’s not going right, the leaders on this team are the first ones to grab me, tell me what I need to do better. That’s why these teams have been so successful. Teammates haven’t been shy to tell ugly truths. That’s the type of leader I want to be.”

“If you’re a freshman, you pay attention to what Kaleena is doing,” wrote Auriemma. “You pay attention to how she gets ready for practice, the things she does in practice, why she’s such a good shooter. There are great examples around you every minute of every day here. If you pay attention, and I think our freshmen are, then you’re going to get better. All our junior class knows is winning National Championships. So if you’re not affected by that, you’re just not paying attention.”

Asked about the Stanford loss, from which UConn has rebounded so resoundingly, Nurse says, in perfect deadpan, “It was a bit of a kerfuffle.” She remembers the team sitting down afterward, talking it over in earnest. Nurse, who’d fouled out, was particularly eager to make amends. “We didn’t want it to happen again,” says Nurse. “We made a change from that point, and worked to get better.”

Auriemma calls Nurse as competitive, if not more so, than any player on this season’s team. “She competes like that every minute of every practice and every game. She plays the game the way it was meant to be played,” he wrote. Adds Williams, citing Nurse’s extensive experience with the Canadian senior national team, “She’s already played against the best players in the world. She doesn’t play like a freshman. She brings a rare intensity, and she couples that with always wanting to learn.”

Williams continued: “After Stanford, we knew we would have to step up, starting in practice. We knew that people weren’t going to roll over just because UConn is printed across our chest. After that loss, the way we practiced and communicated completely changed. We realized, ‘We’re good, but we need to be great. Before that, we weren’t being great.”

Auriemma sees a team that has gotten better with time. “I’m not sure we understood completely what life was going to be like without Stefanie [Dolson] and Bria [Hartley],” he wrote. “[The Stanford] game was a great reminder of what we had to do. We needed players to step up, other than Breanna Stewart. We needed to get much better defensively. I think we are better in every area now than we were that night.”

***

Curtis Ekmark, Courtney’s father, began coaching his daughter at the U9 AAU level. When I first spoke to him, in October 2013, the first words he used to describe Courtney’s impact were “Intelligence, dedication, discipline and subtlety.”

It was intelligence that allowed Ekmark’s offensive game to continually expand. Curtis knew that at UConn, that trait would be utilized. It has allowed her to stay engaged, even as that stress reaction sidelined her earlier this season. Her mind, always humming. “When I was out, that sucked, but you can still do your best given the situation,” says Ekmark. “For me, that was watching my teammates practice. I kind of figured out the flow of the offense, specifically player tendencies. This person likes to cut at this time, this player likes to shoot from here. Little things I might have missed when I was on the court.”

Like Mosqueda-Lewis before her, Ekmark hoped to shed the tag of ‘shooter’ affixed to her throughout her prep career. She wants to be known as a complete player, one who can duck down into the post, board up and provide assists like we’ve seen Mosqueda-Lewis do on the biggest stages.

Adds Auriemma, “Courtney has some skills that have helped us, and would help any team. I think defensively, there’s going to have to be some growing. She’s going to have to learn how to guard at the collegiate level. Offensively, she has a reputation of being able to shoot the ball. Right now, her shooting percentage (31% FG, 22% 3FG) is not where she wants it to be. Again, it’s more getting acclimated to the college game than anything else.”

The acclimation to her new teammates has been seamless. Ekmark lives next door to Nurse and Williams, and, as Nurse notes, “We’re usually dancing and singing. It helps to have the two of them there, going through the exact same freshman things.”

That final year before college, Ekmark created a bucket list comprised of five categories. Charity, religion, basketball, family and…other—namely, things she normally wouldn’t have had the time to do during a school year. Like, cooking class. “Oh yeah, that was fun,” Ekmark says, chuckling. “I actually did it with my mom. It was at Sur La Table, and we made homemade pasta. Next year at UConn, I’ll be in an apartment, so I’ll have a kitchen, and I’ll be able to cook.”

Ekmark plans on majoring in sports management and business. Maybe she’ll throw in a broadcasting minor, too. “These are kind of broad ideas,” she says, before noting she’d obviously like to play basketball as long as possible. “But coaching, law school, being a wedding planner, those are three things I’ve thought of. Still, you never know…”

Maybe another thought will arise, another path to take. After all, she still has three-plus years to go. These UConn kids, huh. Always thinking one step ahead.

Photo courtesy of Stephan Slade