Nurse's return makes the Huskies even better

UConn's Kia Nurse steals the ball from South Florida's Maria Jespersen in the first half of the AAC tournament final on March 5 at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Storrs — So maybe it was a coincidence that Kia Nurse's return to the lineup for the UConn women's basketball team came exactly at the time the Huskies played with snippets of perfection in the American Athletic Conference tournament, long snippets.

Maybe not.

“She's our floor general,” UConn's Gabby Williams said Friday, as the Huskies get set to begin a tournament of an even more significant consequence. “She makes sure she handles everything a point guard should. We kind of get our flow back.”

Nurse, who missed four games to close the regular season due to a stress reaction in her right ankle, returned to the starting lineup for the AAC tournament March 4-6 at Mohegan Sun Arena. She increased her role from 15 minutes and two points in the quarterfinals against Tulsa to 21 minutes and nine points in the semifinals against the University of Central Florida.

In the championship game, Nurse played 22 minutes and had nine points, four rebounds, six assists and a steal in a thorough dismantling of South Florida, 100-44, in which the Huskies shot 12-for-15 (80 percent) in the second quarter and Katie Lou Samuelson earned MVP honors with 40 points and 10 straight 3-pointers.

Nurse was out on the front end of the fast break plenty.

“That's what she does,” Williams said. “She gets out in transition. Teams can't keep up with her.”

Top-ranked UConn, the four-time defending national champion, opens its bid for a possible fifth straight title by kicking off play in the NCAA tournament at 11 a.m. Saturday at Gampel Pavilion (ESPN2). The Huskies (32-0) take on 16th-seeded Albany (21-11), winner of the last six straight America East Conference tournament titles.

Nurse said she's “proud of it,” the way her ankle reacted to her return to game action and to the Huskies' significant stretch of time off since then.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma had another word for Nurse, a 6-foot junior guard, just prior to the AAC tournament: miserable.

“The first part (after she was injured Feb. 13 against South Carolina), she was just miserable and I didn't even talk to her,” Auriemma said. “I didn't care what she had to say because I didn't want to hear it.

“One of the doctors and Janelle (Francisco), our trainer, gave her some information of, 'Hey, OK, we're going to take you out of the boot and put you in an air cast.' Then she came up to me and said, 'Hey, I think I'm going to be ready.'”

Auriemma gave her his best “yeah, whatever.”

“I said, I'm penciling you in for the second round of the NCAA tournament,” Auriemma said, needling his player.

“I don't like being out. It wasn't an injury you could kind of speed up,” Nurse said Friday. “I didn't have time. Your bone has to heal on its own. I was impatient. It's not going to heal. It's not going to heal in time for this tournament. It's not even close to healed.”

Nurse said she wears a brace on the ankle, as well as tape, and spends a great deal of time in the training room receiving treatment. She said, however, that it's not currently causing her pain.

Nurse was tabbed by Auriemma as UConn's “elder statesman” to start the season.

Hailing from Hamilton, Ontario, Nurse was a member of the Canadian Olympic Team which finished seventh in Rio de Janeiro. She's started 100 career games at UConn, dating back to her freshman season — she was the only player to start all 38 games for the Huskies last year — and has already eclipsed the 1,000-point barrier. She was named the 2016-17 AAC Preseason Player of the Year.

While Nurse has delivered, averaging 30.1 minutes per game and providing the Huskies with a steadying hand, its been the emergence of sophomores Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, too, as well as junior Williams, which has helped deliver UConn to this season's success following the graduation of last year's big three in Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck.

Collier and Samuelson were named Co-AAC Players of the Year at the league tournament.

Nurse, who is averaging 12.2 points per game with 51 3-point field goals, was named to the AAC's second team.

Still, there's a sense as UConn defends its turf in the NCAA tournament, along with an NCAA record 107-game winning streak, that Nurse is the one who's been there, done that.

“I've been in this situation a couple times before,” Nurse said with a smile. “To have this experience is something I'm fortunate to have. I think the first time you experience (the NCAA tournament), it's like a deer in headlights. I'm not as nervous now. I understand I have to help the younger guys. … It's time to turn it up a notch.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

NCAA first round

No. 1 UConn vs. No. 16 Albany

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs.

Tip: 11 a.m. (ESPN2).

Records: Albany 21-11 overall; UConn 32-0.

Last game: Albany beat Maine 66-50 to win the America East tournament, March 11; UConn beat South Florida 100-44 to win the American Athletic Conference tournament, March 6.

Probable starters: Albany, 5-6 Fr. G Khepera Stokes (3.0 ppg), 5-8 Sr. G Imani Tate (19.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg), 6-1 Sr. G/F Bailey Hixon (8.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), 5-11 Sr. G/F Jessica Fequiere (12.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg), 6-2 So. F Heather Forster (4.4 ppg).

UConn, 5-8 Sr. G Saniya Chong (8.2 ppg), 6-0 Jr. G Kia Nurse (12.2 ppg), 6-3 So. G/F Katie Lou Samuelson (21.7 ppg), 5-11 Jr. F Gabby Williams (13.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg), 6-1 So. G/F Napheesa Collier (20.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg).

Noteworthy: UConn coach Geno Auriemma has been predicting all season that the Huskies, winners of 107 straight games, would lose one sooner or later. He was asked about that Friday. “The time for thinking like that is over,” he said with a laugh. “(Before), it's like 'hurry up and get it over with,' but now we're in this phase and that's not my thinking. I was just having a conversation with (Iowa State coach) Bill Fennelly that it's quite remarkable that (the winning streak) has gone on this long and it's lasted into this part of the season. I just know that at this time of year, what your record is or what you did for the last five months isn't really that significant. It really is about being able to play great six nights in a row.” … Albany is playing in its sixth straight NCAA tournament after winning its sixth America East tournament in a row. The Great Danes are 1-5 in the tournament, including their first-ever NCAA victory last season over Florida. … Imani Tate was the MVP of the league tournament for Albany, scoring 12 of her 21 points in the second half of the win over Maine. … Albany is coached by Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, in her first season in the position, but formerly an assistant coach at West Virginia and Maryland. Yolanda Griffith, voted by the fans as one of the top 15 players in WNBA history and a former WNBA MVP, is an assistant coach. … Said Bernabei-McNamee of facing UConn: “It's probably my nature to have confidence. I'm an optimistic person. You go into this game and think if you're going to be a 15 or 16 seed, why not play on the biggest stage? … You might go a lifetime and never get that experience as a college basketball player.” … The winner between UConn and Albany will advance to meet the winner between No. 8 Syracuse and No. 9 Iowa State on Monday at a time to be announced by the NCAA. Syracuse and Iowa State play Saturday's second game at Gampel Pavilion at approximately 1:30 p.m.

— Vickie Fulkerson

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