Stevens is UConn's not-so-secret weapon
Storrs — Azurá Stevens was an academic all-star in high school and a Parade All-American from Raleigh, N.C., which pretty much explains the two years she spent as a member of the women's basketball team at Duke University in nearby Durham.
There's a reason, after all, the proximity, that the cities of Raleigh and Durham are often connected with a hyphen, and that gave Stevens' parents, Damon and Kaasha, easy access to watch their daughter bloom as an Atlantic Coast Conference all-star.
The famed arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils. The Research Triangle. The Duke-North Carolina rivalry. Mike Krzyzewski.
And then …
The 6-foot-6 hometown kid transferred to UConn.
“I think after a couple years there, I love my family, I still do,” Stevens said. “But it was about what was more important to me. … As you get older, (being close to home) is a priority, but I don't think it's as intense as when you're a freshman.
“I did really love the academic institution (at Duke). It was a hard decision (to transfer), but you have to make hard decisions sometimes. I don't regret my decision at all.”
On Friday morning, Stevens — her first name is pronounced Az-ur-ay — stood in the UConn locker room at Gampel Pavilion, where Saturday she will play in her first NCAA tournament game as a member of the Huskies.
Stevens excelled at Duke during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, leading the team with 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds as a sophomore and earning All-ACC first team honors. She sat out in 2016-17 after arriving at UConn in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
On Saturday, unbeaten UConn, 32-0, the top-seeded team in the Albany Region and the 11-time national champion, will meet No. 16 Saint Francis (Pa.) in a first-round NCAA game at Gampel beginning at 11 a.m. (ESPN2).
Of course, UConn coach Geno Auriemma hasn't put too much pressure on Stevens.
“I told her, 'We went to the Final Four without you here last year, but we didn't win it,'” Auriemma said. “'You could be the biggest difference between us winning it because you could be the biggest difference on our team.'
“Very few teams in America have anybody like Azurá, so we're hoping that's what makes our team much, much different this year.”
Stevens, whose older sister Da'Shena played at St. John's and is now an assistant coach for the Red Storm, is the sixth man for UConn, joining a roster which returned three All-Americans from a year ago in Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams.
The adjective most likely used to describe Stevens is laid-back.
But you wouldn't know it from what she's accomplished here.
Stevens, averaging 14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots per game, was named the American Athletic Conference Newcomer of the Year and the AAC Sixth Player of the Year entering the league tournament.
She then added the tournament's Most Outstanding Performer hardware to that stash, starting in place of Williams in a semifinal win over Cincinnati due to an injury to Williams. Stevens had 21 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots in the semis and added 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in a 70-54 win over South Florida for the championship.
“It's very rare to have someone come off the bench that can do that,” Auriemma said that day. “… We have a starting six.”
“When we played her in the ACC (when she was at Duke), we did a good job on her, but we didn't really have an answer for her today,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Stevens after the teams' regular-season meeting on Dec. 3.
Samuelson, also a junior, said that unlike the rest of the UConn players, Stevens didn't have a freshman season to acclimate to the Huskies' style of play. She's been learning on the job.
“She really had a tough role this year,” Samuelson said. “I don't think Z's ever made any complaint about anything. Ever. She's probably the best sixth-man in the country, by far.”
Auriemma says her achievements are just the “tip of the iceberg.”
That's including Stevens' team-best .607 field goal percentage. Also, despite her size, she's a proficient passer with 64 assists and has hit nine 3-point field goals. She is the Huskies' leading rebounder and third-leading scorer.
The understated Stevens says she's just trying to get better.
“I definitely was taught a lot of patience,” Stevens said of sitting out a year. “It's all about getting better. I didn't just waltz into this year and play amazing. Every day is a challenge. The Cincinnati game, I just realized I have to step up.
“It helps having a year just to get to know everybody (last year) and mostly everybody came back. … Now it's really fun. It's really exciting. I'm ready to get it started with the team. I just want to impact the game any way that I can.”
No. 1 UConn vs. No. 16 Saint Francis (Pa.)
NCAA tournament first round
Location: Gampel Pavilion
Tip: 11 a.m. (ESPN2).
Records: Saint Francis 24-9 overall; UConn 32-0.
Last game: Saint Francis beat Robert Morris 66-56 in the Northeast Conference tournament final March 11; UConn beat South Florida 70-54 in the American Athletic Conference tournament final March 6.
Probable starters: Saint Francis, 6-2 Sr. F Ace Harrison (10.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.8 spg), 5-9 Jr. G Jessica Kovatch (24.9 ppg), 5-10 redshirt freshman guard Caitlyn Kroll (13.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.1 apg), 5-11 Sr. F Maya Wynn (5.6 ppg), 6-4 Jr. F Courtney Zezza (7.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg).
UConn, 5-5 So. G Crystal Dangerfield (9.6 ppg, 3.9 apg), 6-0 Sr. G Kia Nurse (13.8 ppg), 6-3 Jr. G/F Katie Lou Samuelson (17.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg), 5-11 Sr. F Gabby Williams (10.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.6 spg), 6-1 Jr. G/F Napheesa Collier (15.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg).
Noteworthy: UConn plays its first NCAA tournament game since a loss last season in the national semifinals in Dallas, falling 66-64 to Mississippi State, a defeat which crushed the then-unbeaten Huskies' hopes of a 12th national championship and broke their unprecedented 111-game winning streak. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said his team, while watching the NCAA selection show Monday, was counting how many times Mississippi's State's game-winning shot and ensuing celebration was shown on the broadcast. “They lost track,” Auriemma said. “For us,” Nurse said Friday from Gampel Pavilion, “last year is not something you can forget and it's not something anyone is going to let you forget. We have to use that in the right way, but at the same time (go) into this tournament the same way we approach everything this season. Whatever is going on that day is our focus.” … UConn enters the NCAA tournament undefeated for the third straight season and the 10th time in program history. … Saint Francis, meanwhile, is led by Kovatch, the nation's second-leading scorer. Kovatch, who hails from Phillipsburg, N.J., is 141-for-365 from 3-point range this season to lead the country in both makes and attempts from long range. Kovatch has 2,149 career points, the first junior in NCAA history to break the 2,000-point barrier. “He gave me the green light ever since I stepped on the court for him,” Kovatch said of coach Joe Haigh, “… just these crazy shots you wouldn't want your player to take, but he embraces those shots.” Said Haigh, whose team has taken 1,095 3-pointers in all this season (compared to UConn's 659): “(Kovatch) does make some crazy shots. She has a great shooting touch and has the ability to change her release point, her body angle, her arm angle. She has the ability to get the ball in the basket in unique ways.” … UConn is 2-0 all-time against Saint Francis, with both wins coming in the NCAA tournament. … For the first time in program history, UConn has four players with more than 1,500 career points, with Samuelson (1,638), Nurse (1,615), Williams (1,510) and Collier (1,505). Azura Stevens is next up with 1,410. … The NEC tournament title for Saint Francis was its 12th in program history. The Red Flash are 0-11 in the NCAA tournament.
— Vickie Fulkerson
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