Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis: California Player Of Year Knew She'd End Up At UConn

STORRS -- Imagine the kismet of the moment for Mater Dei girls basketball coach Kevin Kiernan on his first day on the job four summers ago.

The Santa Ana, Calif., school was known for spawning college quarterbacks; some good, like Matt Barkley and Colt Brennan, some great, like Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and John Huarte.

But Kiernan, a former sports writer who once covered the NFL, knew that wouldn't help his program.

Where would his quarterback come from?

As it turned out, she walked through the front door of the gym. She was just 14 years old.

"It didn't take a genius to figure out that Kaleena was going to be pretty good," Kiernan said.

That would be Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the kid who loves scrapbooking and cooking breakfast. She's also the kid who didn't like basketball when she was in third grade but nine years later is one of the greatest in California history.

"We were fortunate to have a player of that caliber for four years," Kiernan said. "It's rare for a player to come to a program in the ninth grade, mature physically and be prepared to play, already 6 feet and strong.

"She's likely the best shooter I have ever seen, incredible accuracy from three-point range. She can play inside and out and is faster than she may look. … She's one of those players that you rarely get in high school."

During her high school career, Mosqueda-Lewis, a team captain as a sophomore, led her team in scoring each year she played. Mater Dei won state championships in her junior and senior seasons.

The program was ranked No. 1 last season by USA Today and she was the consensus 2011 national high school player of the year, in addition to winning the Naismith Award and being called player of the year by WBCA/State Farm, Gatorade, Parade, USA Today and ESPN HoopGurlz.

Her forte is outside shooting.

"I would hope so," KML said, "because I practice it every day."

She made a school-record nine threes against Fairfax on March 8 and made 337 career threes, more than anyone in her school's history. Mosqueda-Lewis also holds the school record for points (2,744) and rebounds (876).

She averaged 22.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists as a senior, setting a career high with 33 points in the state championship game.

And from the time she was in ninth grade, she knew where she wanted to go to college.

"Ever since I was a little girl, my dad [stepfather Khairi Ali] has been telling me that if I wanted to do something great I needed to go for it full throttle," KML said. "You can't go halfway, it's all or nothing. So if you want to play basketball, go to UConn and do it all the way."

She offered UConn an oral commitment as a sophomore, a very rare but pleasant surprise.

"Some kids just know," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They come [to campus] to see what they think it will be like after growing up imagining what UConn may be like. … Then they get here, watch a couple practices, watch a game, get a feel for the campus and the players.

"If they like it, they come here. If it's not what they thought, they compare it to other places or just move on. Some kids just have an idea of what they want to become and where they need to go to get it. They know what their goals are and where to go to meet them.

"Maya Moore was not that much different. It didn't take a lot of convincing her. Shea Ralph, Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Diana Taurasi were like that, too."

Kiernan said it was a decision KML has never regretted.

"She is so focused, so determined," Kiernan said. "She knows the path she wants to take. She decided on UConn earlier than anyone I've ever had. And she never wavered, even after people told her she would get yelled at [by the coaches]. She was yelled at here, too, so she was ready for it.

"She was determined go to a school and be in a situation where she felt comfortable with her teammates. She wants it to be a fun situation and she felt the sense of family right away at Connecticut. She never looked back, never took any other visits. She found what she was looking for right there."

Mosqueda-Lewis' life and career have been helped dramatically by her stepfather, a firefighter in Anaheim, who took responsibility for her upbringing and physical training.

"Her mother, Sundy Ali, played softball at Mater Dei," Kiernan said. "And Mr. Ali is a ball of energy, a great guy, very supportive of her. … He's always been there for her when she needed it. He stepped into the void for her and her mother. You can tell the love and respect is there."

That has translated into her development off the court. KML served on her high school student council.

"I was responsible for welcoming incoming students and for all of the activities that went on on campus," KML said this summer. "I helped out with various things, decorated, stuff like that."

She coached and volunteered with programs such as the Blind Children's Learning Center, Orange County Head Start, Urban Compass Christmas Outreach.

"I just like to see young kids trying to better themselves," she said. "Basketball teaches you a lot on. So being able to help little girls who want to be a part of something that is special -- like playing for USA Basketball and going to Connecticut. I want to be an inspiration."

And UConn's coaches have found her to be an active learner, and as Kiernan said, a much better all-around player.

"People have always labeled her just as a great shooter; as if that was the only thing she does well," said Chris Dailey, UConn's associate head coach. "What I have been most impressed with, and I've felt this way since she arrived on campus in August, is that she is a really good passer and a really good rebounder. And while she's not a great on-ball defender right now, she plays passing lanes very well. She is also a very good ball-handler.

"What I am saying is, she's a better all-around player than most people give her credit for. Most importantly, she understands how to play, and I don't think that people in her career have given her that kind of credit."

And now, time has come for KML to blaze a new path, wearing the No. 23 Maya Moore wore before her.

"Our program considers itself very fortunate to have her play for a program like UConn's," Kiernan said. "We had an incredible time while she was here."

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