Nurse delivers big game, two-handed layup

Photo of Brian Koonz

STORRS — In a joyful moment of unscripted levity, Kia Nurse ran past the UConn bench and giggled at Geno Auriemma.

The coach with all the answers and all the championships rubbed his face and grinned. On a day when his junior guard from Hamilton, Ontario, couldn’t miss, the toughest shot she took the whole game was, well, a layup.

Never mind the 6-of-7 line from 3-point range. Or the sizzling 8-of-10 shooting overall.

Nurse scored a game-high 24 points Saturday to lead top-seeded UConn past No. 16 seed Albany, 116-55, in the NCAA Tournament’s first round at Gampel Pavilion.

With the Huskies rolling in the second half, Nurse broke free and headed for the basket. But instead of laying the ball off the glass, she pushed the ball off the backboard with two hands, volleyball-style.

“She shoots layups the Canadian way,” Auriemma said later. “She doesn’t know whether she should shoot it back-handed or a slap shot. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing shooting layups.

“I was trying to show her (Friday) how to shoot it the American way. When she missed, I was just shaking my head and she just started laughing. She knows what I’m talking about.”

UConn (33-0) won its record-extending 108th consecutive game Saturday after Nurse put on a clinic against Albany (21-12). The Huskies will face No. 8 seed Syracuse (22-10) on Monday night in a rematch of last year’s national championship game.

And while this was hardly UConn’s best defensive effort of the year, it was an important game for Nurse, who has struggled down the stretch with a right ankle injury.

The Huskies need Nurse to be productive in the NCAA Tournament. She is critical to their Final Four and national championship aspirations.

Although sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier draw the headlines and the double-teams, Nurse’s experience is essential to a team rich with promise and talent, but lacking the deep, accountable minutes of March and April.

Samuelson and Collier were freshmen last season, understudies to Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck. Collier scored six points in UConn’s 82-51 victory over Syracuse for the national championship. Samuelson didn’t play against the Orange after getting hurt in the national semifinals.

Nurse, meanwhile, played a game-high 39 minutes in that national championship game. Even when the expectations are suffocating in Storrs, the rarefied air carries the legacy here.

Every time.

Nurse has the veteran’s logbook, with every meaningful minute posted in victorious ink. She is postseason-tested, and that matters now more than ever.

Nurse’s ability to run the offense and rebound the ball, her range behind the 3-point arc, her inspired defense and passing — even her clutch, two-handed layups — make her one of the most valuable players on this team.

“I was in a rhythm and there was no real thinking,” Nurse said Saturday afternoon. “You’re in a rhythm. You’re open. You shoot it and you’re all right.

“Getting in the gym this weekend, getting some extra shots ... and trying to get that feel back, that helped a ton.”

This is the effort, the focus, the method UConn will need over the next 2 1/2 weeks to chase a championship comet in Dallas.

Sore right ankles are nothing compared to NCAA trophies and confetti showers in April.

“Her biggest strength is when she puts her head down and she’s going, nobody is going to get in her way,” Auriemma said, still unable to let go of that crazy layup.

“It’s unbelievable, huh? That’s why I’m a great coach,” he said. “I’m taking the starting point guard from the Canadian national team and trying to show her how to shoot a layup. Who’s better than me?”; @briankoonz