UConn counting on Nurse to guide talented freshmen
WEST HARTFORD — The last Monday of June is typically the time for the next wave of highly touted UConn women’s basketball freshmen to meet with the media as a group for the first time at Geno Auriemma’s Fore the Kids Charity Golf Tournament.
Newcomers Mikayla Coombs, Andra Espinoza-Hunter, Lexi Gordon and Megan Walker were out in full force at the Hartford Golf Club, but there was another member of the Huskies in attendance who usually doesn’t partake in the unofficial media day festivities.
Thanks to her summers spent training and playing with the Canadian national team, rising senior Kia Nurse tends not to be in the Nutmeg State at this time of the year. However, with the folks at Canada Basketball allowing one of the cornerstones on the national team to miss the first two stages of training, Nurse joined her teammates in greeting golfers during their rounds on Monday.
“We are working with a lot of new players because we are kind of in a transition phase right now,” Nurse said. “A lot of our older players are getting the breaks they need at this point. For me, they were fortunate enough to let me hang out here in the summer and finish up with them in the final phase (beginning on July 23).”
When Canada played five international friendlies in Spain and France in late May and early June, there were plenty of new faces taking the court, including 15-year-old Laeticia Amihere and 17-year-old Alyssa Jerome.
The training camp in the second phase wrapped up on Monday with six different players with no Olympic or World Championship experience slated to head to China, where Canada will play six games against rival national teams in early July.
When the team gathers in Edmonton on July 23 for the final stage of training in preparation for the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup 2017, Nurse and many of her fellow 2016 Olympians will be on hand. But not everybody will be there. Veterans Lizanne Murphy, Shona Thorburn and Tamara Tatham announced their retirement from the Canadian national team after the 2016 Olympics. Their departure means an even bigger leadership role for Nurse moving forward.
“We definitely have a changing of the guard in terms of leadership,” Nurse said. “Having myself, Miah-Marie Langlois, we still have Miranda Ayim, so we are fortunate to have that leadership, but kind of understanding that we have to take a new role and stepping up in that sense. What they brought to our team, the passion and energy, we are trying to keep that going on through the next generation. It obviously changes the dynamic of the team itself because the team can change based on the new people we are bringing in, so hopefully we will be a force to be reckoned with in the next quad.
“I am fortunate to have been in this position this year (at UConn) where you know you just got thrown into that role. I think coach (Auriemma), CD (associate head coach Chris Dailey), Shea (Ralph) and Marisa (Moseley) have given me a lot of tools that have helped me become a better leader, but there is still a ways to go. Anytime you have to be in a leadership position, you are growing a little more.”
Nurse might be asked to be a leader for her national team, but there’s no doubting that she will be in a leadership role for her final season at UConn.
Among the players she will be looking to help make the adjustment to the college game is Mikayla Coombs, a talented prospect that Auriemma said brings a similar work ethic and intensity as Nurse. It remains to be seen if Coombs makes an immediate impact as Nurse did as a freshman, but her ability to impact a game regardless of whether she is making shots is already drawing raves from her older teammates.
“Mikayla, compared to the first time we played pickup, has done a lot more with the ball and she’s not afraid to attack,” UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson said.
Coombs admits she was playing with the hope of not upsetting her older teammates at the first couple of pickup games, but now she is getting to the point of trusting her basketball instincts.
“I was a little timid because I was shy,” Coombs said. “Now, we played yesterday and if I see an open shot, I am going to take it, or drive to the basket, or trying to do a pass I wouldn’t have done earlier, it has all been an adjustment but I am getting there.”