Brian Koonz: In her senior year, Chong isn’t letting go

Photo of Brian Koonz

BRIDGEPORT — For years, Ossining High has kept its best stories inside the gothic cathedral that passes as a school.

Never mind the razor-wire fences and the electric chair legacy down the street at New York’s most notorious prison. Ossining High still shares the banks of the Hudson with Sing Sing.

But for UConn senior Saniya Chong, the story was shared early, long before she played the game of her life Saturday for the top-seeded Huskies in an 86-71 victory over No. 4 UCLA in the Sweet 16 at Webster Bank Arena.

Chong finished with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists against the Bruins. It was the payoff UConn coach Geno Auriemma envisioned when he watched her play in high school with the throttle of a runaway train.

“When she played in high school, it was chaotic,” Auriemma said. “They would just run up and down the floor and try to score 100 every night. I went to see her play one night and she must’ve had 45 points or something.

“If she could’ve passed it to herself, she would’ve. And when she got here, it was a real struggle to play with other good players and not just be able to do whatever she felt like.”

Chong came to UConn with four, 50-point games in her pocket at Ossining. She was the dangerous and remorseless assassin in high school, the player who shot daggers with the precision of a sideshow marksman.

But the Huskies were the furthest thing away from a sideshow. It took time for Chong to learn best practices and better results. UConn was the biggest stage in women’s college basketball, the proving ground for national championships, future Olympians and WNBA All-Stars.

So when Auriemma gave Chong a scholarship, it didn’t come with any promises or fine print. The offers never do at UConn.

“It was hard when I first got here. In high school, yeah, we did go up and down,” Chong said. “I always had the ball in my hands because I was the point guard, but it was a huge difference going from high school to college. Yeah, I struggled — a lot.”

And everyone, from the coaches to her teammates, noticed the stubborn inconsistency. The 5-foot-8 Chong wore it like a cloak of self-doubt.

“She would get it going for a week, and we would always say, ‘All right, this is it.’ And then it would go away,” Auriemma said. “Then she’d get it back for another week: ‘All right, we got it.’ And then it would go away. And it was like that every year.”

Until now.

Suddenly, the player who never averaged more than 6 points her first three years has emerged as a reliable, capable leader. Her throttle has gears now. It’s not stuck in the out-of-control position anymore.

Chong’s role doesn’t end with waving Kia Nurse into position to rain another 3-pointer. Auriemma loves her finger-pointing at Nurse — backpedaling the whole way — because he knows this team has confidence in her now.

More importantly, Chong has confidence in herself.

She shined against UCLA in a game where UConn quickly fell behind 9-2. The Bruins were never going to win this game, but they were never going to go quietly, either.

“The play of Saniya, I thought, was the difference in the game,” Auriemma said. “She’s as good now as she can be, and it’s at the perfect time in her career. She’s a senior.

“Sometimes, it never happens, and I’m thrilled for her that it’s happening. She deserves it. She’s hung in there.”

Chong might be the most malleable player on UConn’s roster, the smooth playmaker who sees the journey on each possession now. At last, Chong is a starter — the keys to the dream in one hand, her dribble in the other.

“She stepped up. They’re not an easy team to guard,” UConn junior Gabby Williams said after the UCLA game. “The matchups are pretty tough. I was really impressed with how she did on the glass. She was boxing out guys who were a lot bigger than her.”

With 40 seconds to play Saturday, Chong slipped in for a defensive rebound under the UCLA basket.

Kari Korver, the 3-point shooter from the same family as Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyle Korver, screamed at her teammates: “No, no, no! Go get it!”

But it didn’t matter because Saniya Chong isn’t letting go this year.

Of anything.; @briankoonz