FRESHMAN CLASS: UConn Restocking The Shelves With 3 Impressive Newcomers

UConn HuskiesBasketballSportsMichala JohnsonLauren EngelnSamarie WalkerKelly Faris

There is a small refrigerator in the women's basketball locker room at Gampel Pavilion that frequently needs to be replenished. Athletes tend to get thirsty after one of those famous Geno Auriemma practices.

And the job of restocking it falls to a small group of resourceful and enthusiastic young women. Although they are all over-qualified for the job, they are more than willing to do it to fit comfortably into the social order of a program long based on the principles of tradition and regulation.

"They also have to wait to take showers, they don't get the front seat [on buses]," senior Kelly Faris said. "They are the last to eat.

"It's not really big things, just little annoying things."

Welcome to UConn, Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson, the freshmen Class of 2012.

"Oh, it's not that bad," said Stewart of the chores. "It's our responsibility to fill [the refrigerator] with water, Gatorade, Powerade, whatever the team wants. And when we lift [weights], we are in charge of bringing the water bottles to the training room and then bring them back when we are finished.

"I'm not going to say I'm completely positive that that's all we'll be asked to do; I am sure there is other stuff they have planned that we don't know about yet."

Stewart is correct. There are many other chores the coaches and upperclassmen expect the freshmen to do — some even as important as helping lead the Huskies to their sixth straight Final Four and eighth national championship.

"This is going to be an incredibly talented UConn team — and that's without even talking about the freshmen," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "There are two possible Hall of Famers in that class."

The sound of that likely makes Auriemma and his staff cringe. Freshmen don't always turn out the way their high school transcripts predict.

For example, the junior class, so highly regarded in the starting blocks, is now highlighted by only Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson. Once five deep, Lauren Engeln, Michala Johnson and Samarie Walker sought other opportunities and more playing time.

That is why Auriemma might blanch if asked to predict stardom for players so young and untested. But what's already apparent is that he sees things within this group that distinguishes it. And that is significant in and of itself.

"In the past, I'd recruit very confident players and their confidence was real, born out of instruction. And when they were wrong they were disciplined," Auriemma said. "But when they got it right, they were congratulated. So they learned how to do things and their confidence soared.

"But the confidence many of the kids today have is fake. It's all posturing. The minute something goes wrong they fall apart. Well, even at this point, Brea and Morgan are confident; they know it and they play like it. The confidence is real. There is nothing fake about these guys. They know they are good, they've proven [it] and they play like it and nothing will shake it. … They may get knocked around, but their confidence will not waver."

In the 6-foot-4 Stewart, the 6-2 Tuck and 5-7 Jefferson, the Huskies possess the ultimate triangle offense, all with different talents. All three are consensus All-Americans, WBCA all-stars and veterans of USA Basketball.

Stewart, the consensus national player of the year from Syracuse, N.Y., the one with the 71-inch wingspan, might be one of the greatest recruits UConn has ever landed.

She has already been compared to male counterparts such as George Gervin and Kevin Durant, both so fluid inside and so devastating from the perimeter.

"Yes, I would agree with that," said Carol Callan, the manager of USA Basketball's women's national programs. The freshmen "are going to be a lot of fun to watch." Callan said.

"There are a few players to have come through that catch your attention when they are in high school; Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi come to mind," she said.

The presence of these three will have an immediate and significant impact on the depth and versatility of the team.

"We are confident because this is something we know we can do," Tuck said. "We are here for a reason. And our teammates are helping us understand if we are doing things the right way. I can ask anyone and they will tell me."

The place where change promises to be most apparent is in the post, where opponents will no longer be able to pick and poke on Dolson, daring the perimeter players to do something about it.

"I was saying at practice the other day that Breanna Stewart comes into practice and she can do so many great things for us; offensively, defensively, shot-blocking," Hartley said.

"Morgan is one of those players that will fly under the radar. And Moriah is a quick, shifty guard, a little gnat on the court. She's so little that you hardly notice her and then all of a sudden she pops up. She can contribute a lot because we want to play a fast game."

They come to the program with a clear level of maturity.

"The main reason I came to UConn was my desire to play against the best players in the country," said Tuck, who Bruno compared to a mix of Nykesha Sales and Jamelle Elliott, two of UConn's all-time greats. "I visited campus the night of the Baylor game [Hartford in November 2010]. I'd never seen that many people at a college women's game and I was thinking, 'If there are so many people here to support [the Huskies], why wouldn't I want to come to the place that has the best fans here every night. The atmosphere is something no place else has."

Jefferson, home schooled in Texas, began the transition to college by taking junior college classes last season. She said she has had no trouble adapting to the regimentation of the conventional classroom or the Auriemma practice floor.

"My strength is trying to be a general on the floor,"Jefferson said. "I try to get to know my teammates as well as I can, try to know what they can do and not do and I try to get everyone in the flow of the game.

"I'm the drive, attack kind of offensive player. But being little, I have to change it up and try to be as good as a perimeter player.

"And actually, this has been exactly as I expected. I knew what Coach was like when I decided to come here and I have no problem being yelled at because I understand he's trying to get the best out of myself and the team. When he yells, all I do is try to listen to exactly what he is saying."

 

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